UC Berkeley is Disavowing its Eugenic Research Fund after Bioethicist and Other Faculty Call it OutBreaking News
tags: racism, University of California, fertility, eugenics, reproductive medicine
In late 2018, UC Berkeley bioethics professor Osagie K. Obasogie received a campus email about a research fund available to faculty members in the School of Public Health.
He was stunned by what he read.
The Genealogical Eugenic Institute Fund, the email said, supports research and education in eugenics — a field discredited after World War II as a horrifying ideology that sought to use science to improve the human race by promoting traits deemed superior and breeding out those judged undesirable. The judgments aligned strongly with social biases that favored white, able-bodied and financially stable people.
Eugenics was used as a justification for Hitler’s Nazi Germany to kill 6 million Jewish people, and U.S. authorities to forcibly sterilize more than 60,000 people in California and more than 30 other states largely in the early 20th century.
But Berkeley’s eugenic research fund has been very much active.
The $2.4-million fund was offering an annual payout of about $70,000 in fiscal year 2020 to support research and education on policies, practices and technologies that could “affect the distribution of traits in the human race,” including those related to family planning, infertility, assisted reproduction technologies, prenatal screening, abortion, gene editing and gene modification, the email said. That “modern definition of eugenics” included “perspectives that shed light on not only the benefits but also the limitations and the ethics of these alternative approaches to improving the human race.”
“I was shocked and dismayed,” Obasogie told the Los Angeles Times. He, along with a small group of faculty, raised their concerns with the email’s author, a former senior administrator.
Those alarm bells prompted the school to freeze the fund and launch a review into how the university could have accepted such a gift in its modern past — it came from a family trust to the University of California Board of Regents in 1975 — for research under the banner of a now-reviled ideology.
But Berkeley’s eugenic research fund highlights a reality that Obasogie and other ethicists say is insufficiently discussed: Eugenic thinking did not disappear after the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed. In some ways, it remains embedded in medicine and public health today.
In the United States, government and medical authorities no longer promote eugenics through laws allowing forced sterilization, for instance, or barring marriages with the “feeble-minded” or between races. About 20,000 people — disproportionately nonwhite and poor — in California institutions were sterilized under the state eugenic law, which was enacted in 1909 and repealed in 1979.
But the development of reproductive and genetic technologies today allows individuals to make some limited choices about what kinds of humans they deem most desirable and should be selected to live, said Alexandra Minna Stern, a University of Michigan expert on eugenics.
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