Breeding injustice

In the face of recent setbacks in the courts, advocates of same-sex marriage should take a look at old-fashioned efforts to prevent the disabled from marrying
By MICHAEL J. AMICO  |  August 10, 2006

Click the image to read the text found on the "If You Are Fit to Marry" poster

How “fit” is your family? There was a time, within living memory, when “fitness” meant much more than sculpted abs and a strong heart rate. As recently as 70 years ago, it also referred more ominously to hereditary improvement of the “race” through selective breeding. Promotion of fitness in this sense, or “eugenics,” was so widely and casually embraced during the first half of the 20th century that many of its ideas were enshrined in marriage and reproductive law. While today only the most hard-hearted would press for sterilizing the “feeble-minded” or preventing the mentally retarded from marrying, similar arguments are regularly made in favor of banning same-sex marriage.

According to The Science of Eugenics, published by the Eugenics Health Foundation in 1930, the term “unfit” covered enormous ground. It included anyone suffering from “nervous prostration, sick headaches, neurasthenia, hysteria, melancholia, St. Vitus’ dance, epilepsy, syphilis, alcoholism, pauperism, criminality, prostitution and insanity. … nervous disorders, including certain forms of deafness, color blindness and other indications of defectiveness and degeneracy.” Of course, eugenicists also considered “homosexuality” degenerate, an embarrassing blight on the family gene pool, something that “should be inhibited in the interest of civilization and the well-being of future generations,” according to Dr. F.E. Daniel in 1893. By the end of the 1930s, eugenicists had pushed through a web of state laws prohibiting those they viewed as genetically inadequate from marrying. But since homosexual couples couldn’t reproduce, no one went to the trouble of outright prohibiting that group of the “unfit” from marrying each other.

Until now. Some prohibitions on marriage among the “unfit” still linger, unenforced, on the books, but many have been repealed, thanks to the rise of the disability rights movement in the 1970s. For gay people, however, the fun is just beginning: the right-wing rhetoric of “marriage protection” employs the same logic and language used by proponents of eugenics in the early-20th century. And it’s about time they be called on it.

Given the recent string of legal setbacks for same-sex marriage, advocates should reassess their strategies both in- and outside the courtroom. After all, the argument that gay people should be able to marry each other because they are full citizens under the law can be further advanced if we understand what same-sex couples share, legally and culturally, with others who have historically been prohibited from marrying. For that we must look to the unseemly history of genetic engineering in the US, in which it is apparent that denial of equal marriage rights is linked to America’s dark eugenics past.

Medical madcapping
This desire to filter the breeding pool began in the heart of the industrializing cities at the end of the 19th century. As middle-class white people felt overwhelmed and frightened by the flood of lower-class immigrants pouring into the US, a determined group of social reactionaries — including many respected scientists and a surprising number of leading feminists interested in “family planning” — launched the eugenics movement to purge human “stock” of the “unfit.” To quicken the “survival of the fittest,” crusaders lobbied for legal reforms that would regulate marriage in such a way as to kill off, through attrition, socially and biologically undesirable groups.

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Bloody July: In just one month, six different State Supreme Courts have ruled against gay marriage. By Michael Amico

What is eugenics?
According to the second edition of Webster’s International Dictionary, published in 1934, eugenics is “The science that deals with influences … that improve inborn or hereditary qualities in a series of generations of race or breed, esp. of the human race.” In practice, that meant, among other things, seeking legislation to prohibit the “unfit” from marrying. In 1921, for example, New York State considered “An act to amend the domestic relations law, in relation to the prevention of hereditary blindness” that proposed giving judges power not to certify marriage between the blind if “by reason and the nature of such visual defects the children of such marriage might become blind and thereby be a charge upon the public.”