Time to Apologize for Eugenics

by Adam Keiper

In yesterday’s New York Post, Naomi Schaefer Riley described a new exhibit at NYU recounting some of the activities of American scientists and prominent progressive figures who promoted eugenics in the first half of the 20 century. She notes that the Eugenics Records Office (ERO), which propagated much of the most morally repugnant eugenic pseudoscience, received “funding from the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation and land donated by the Harriman family (whose money came from the railroads).” The ERO, Riley writes, “had the financial backing of the most important and ‘forward thinking’ folks of the time.”

That is exactly right. Several of the country’s first philanthropic foundations, including some that are among the biggest foundations still around today, provided the money that made possible both the intellectual and the practical aspects of the American eugenics project, resulting in gross violations of human dignity — including policies of mandatory institutionalization and sterilization of individuals deemed “unfit.” These foundations were proud of eugenics, considering it one of their great early successes. Today, though, they act as if this ugly part of their legacy never happened.

Enough is enough. The foundations that supported eugenics should formally and publicly apologize. In a powerful essay we published last year in The New Atlantis, William Schambra, director of the Bradley Center on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, dubs eugenics “philanthropy’s original sin” and calls on the foundations that supported it to adopt an approach of “research, regret, and reflection”:

First, the research: Foundations associated with eugenics should raise a modest sum of money to invite independent scholars to dig into their archives, and locate and publish all the historical documents relating to their involvement with the movement. Three or four leading historians of eugenics could then examine the documents, sum up their findings, and render a judgment about the degree of culpability foundations bear. . . .\

Beyond conducting research, foundations involved in eugenics should publicly demonstrate regret. Expressions of remorse by institutions for participation in eugenics are becoming more common, and therefore more expected. In recent years, the governors or legislatures of several of the states that engaged most enthusiastically in eugenic sterilization have issued official apologies. . . . But despite dozens of apologies from state legislators and governors, directors of medical schools, and newspapers, not one official public expression of regret has been uttered by representatives of the foundations that helped persuade the states to adopt sterilization laws in the first place. . . . Apologies from the philanthropic sector for promoting eugenics are long overdue.

Whether or not regrets are ever expressed, the third component of this approach to handling past wrongdoing – reflection – is imperative. Philanthropy should reflect on what the history of eugenics has to teach us about the dangers posed by the grand projects that seek to drive down to the root causes of social problems and solve them once and for all. . . .Very little has changed over the past hundred years in the basic structure of American foundations — the structure that does so much to shield large-scale philanthropy from the consequences of its own actions, including momentous errors like eugenics. . . . Foundations remain almost hermetically sealed institutions, more or less impervious to the pressures that push and pull our other economic and political entities, and that make them ever mindful of the consequences of their decisions.

More than a century after American philanthropy began supporting eugenics and four decades after the last compulsory sterilizations, it is too late for the responsible foundations to offer any meaningful reparations. But it is not too late for them to come clean, to apologize, and to take to heart the humbling lesson of the wrongs their dollars bought.

—Adam Keiper is editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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