The parallels between recent COVID hysteria and the eugenics movement of the Progressive era

Many readers have heard of eugenics, a set of beliefs that involves improving human beings through scientific experimentation and the exclusion of certain “undesirable” groups. Eugenics were used by the Nazi regime in the 1930s and 1940s to justify forced sterilization, medical experimentation and ultimately the extermination of millions of human beings in an attempt to improve the German race.

What many people don’t know is that 100 years ago Progressives were almost all eugenicists. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson — Progressive heroes — both promoted eugenics. The scientific “consensus” of the early 20th century was that eugenics were needed to create better human beings and a better society.

Princeton University scholar Thomas C. Leonard documents this in his 2016 book Illiberal Reformers; Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era. “In 1928, 376 college courses were dedicated to the subject of eugenics,” he wrote.

The result in the United States? More than 60,000 people were forcibly sterilized. Eugenics were used to justify segregation and Jim Crow laws because the thought process was that African-Americans were genetically inferior. But eugenics was not just aimed at African-Americans, of course. The “inferior” people included “degenerate Anglo-Saxon hill clans, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and Asia, backward peoples in the territories of the new American empire, African Americans, the feebleminded, [and] the epileptic” among many others, Leonard writes. More than 30 US states passed laws in favor of forced sterilization.

It is important to understand that the eugenics movement was considered “settled science.” Darwin and subsequent biologists had conclusively proven that natural selection would help create the best human beings, and the role of the government was to promote policies to help natural selection along. The science of the day proved that it would be harmful to the general society for inferior people to be part of the gene pool. For the good of all, the less desirable must be forced out, and it was government’s role to protect the common good.

And here we arrive at a crucial lesson we should have learned from the horrors of the eugenics movement: individual rights are always more important than societal rights. The U.S. Constitution concentrates on individual rights and limits governmental authority to infringe on these rights. And it is also true that traditional Judeo-Christian values have promoted the idea that individuals, as sons and daughters of God, have natural rights that supersede societal rights.

Eugenics was evil in every way. It was racist, it was classist, it was illiberal, it was murderous and it was used to justify societal tyranny instead of individual rights.

And that is exactly what COVID-19 hysterics are promoting today.

Any government mandate regarding COVID-19 is necessarily a violation of the individual right of freedom of choice. This applies to mask mandates, lockdowns and the new threat, vaccine mandates. Keep in mind that all of the justifications used to promote the mandates involve supposed threats to the “common good” or “the greater society.”

Promoters of the mandates always appeal to the “settled science” that has been manipulated to promote whatever policy they want to impose on free human beings. So we are forced to wear masks when the science clearly shows that masks do not work against viruses.  The science has clearly shown that lockdowns don’t work, yet we keep on seeing lockdowns worldwide (that do nothing to improve the situation long term). The COVID hysterics ignore the role of natural immunity when the science clearly shows that natural immunity is even better than being vaccinated.  We are told to trust the vaccines, when the science shows that there have been hundreds of thousands of adverse reactions to the vaccines.  We are told to panic about this virus when the the truth is that COVID is relatively harmless for the vast majority of people

The sad thing is that this is exactly what happened during the Progressive Era to justify eugenics. Check out this 1926 essay from Clarence Darrow, an early ACLU leader (back in the days when the ACLU actually defended civil liberties). Darrow was one of the few public intellectuals willing to criticize eugenics.

Quotations from other eminent authorities might be multiplied to show just how far the biological uplifters are willing to go. Their romancing would not be worth discussing were it not for the fact that the public apparently takes it at its face value. “Aren’t these eugenists. scientists? And you can’t get around scientific law, you know.” The politicians stand ready with their usual willingness to deliver what the people want. So-called eugenic laws are already on the statute books of various States.

Darrow pointed out that, in fact, science has not proven that statist control will necessarily produce better humans, and he questions the very premises of the entire exercise:

But on what grounds would anyone be rash enough to want to change the physical type of man? Have we any assurance that a different type would be more desirable? If so, what kind of type? Furthermore, haven’t the eugenists in their zeal for “bringing the world into an earthly paradise,” forgotten that man, as he stands, is created in the image of God?….It is not unusual to find imbecility in the same family with first-rate intellects. To talk about breeding for intellect, in the present state of scientific knowledge and data, is nothing short of absurd. No scientist has ever pretended to advance any theories for breeding intellect; we do not know what intelligence is, much less how to breed it.

Darrow went on:

Even if human breeding could be so controlled as to produce a race such as the eugenists desire, we might still lose much that is worth while. It is hardly possible to breed certain qualities in without breeding others out. I, for one, am alarmed at the conceit and sureness of the advocates of this new dream. I shudder at their ruthlessness in meddling with life. I resent their egoistic and stern righteousness. I shrink from their judgment of their fellows. Every one who passes judgment necessarily assumes that he is right. It seems to me that man can bring comfort and happiness out of life only by tolerance, kindness and sympathy, all of which seem to find no place in the eugenists’ creed. The whole programme means the absolute violation of what men instinctively feel to be inherent rights. Organized society shall say who must and must not breed, and establish stern rules for picking out mates.

Darrow writes:

The bigoted and the ignorant are very sure of themselves. No business seems to be too important or too personal for them to undertake. One of their chief pastimes is the regulation of other people. They are willing to do anything to others that to them seems important. To compel all others to adopt their own views and ways of living is their aim. In fact, one of their chief sources of comfort and pleasure is making others unhappy. How safe would it be for the human race and the comfort of the individual units if the production of human beings were left in their hands?

Darrow, one of the few brave intellectuals willing to take on the scientific “consensus” of his day, could have been writing for our time. Notice how the eugenists were busy-bodies intent on compelling others to accept their beliefs, just like the COVID hysterics of today? Notice how they ignored the most basic scientific and moral objections in their attempt to “improve society?” Notice how they did not care at all about others’ individual rights?

History has already shown us what eugenics wrought: forced sterilization, medical experiments, concentration camps and millions of unnecessary deaths. We are in the early stages of the Viral Panics of the 21st century, but it is easy to imagine a future a few years from now similar to the horrors of the Nazi regime. The horrors we are already living through, with endless lockdowns in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, and a growing list of mask mandates, travel mandates and vaccine mandates, is bad enough. But it could get so much worse. I pray it does not, but based on the history of eugenics, I fear it may be too late.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

5 thoughts on “The parallels between recent COVID hysteria and the eugenics movement of the Progressive era

  1. I am so thankful for thoughtful people like you who can put into words what I know to be true but can’t express. Thank you! All the problems of the world boil down to agency, and obedience to God’s law. We are all here to gain a body and have the opportunity to choose right from wrong, righteousness from evil; we can’t do that when our agency is taken away by zealous evil governments or well meaning but miseducated people. And who are they miseducated by? The “prophets and teachers” of Satan himself, who seems to have just as many (or more) false prophets as the Lord has true ones in every age. Keep up the good work!

  2. There is a difference between science and public policy. Ideally, public policy should be informed by science and ethics. Eugenics is not science any more than current Covid policies are science. And this idea of settled science is also problematic. Science is always tentative and could change based on new information. This is uncomfortable for people in a rapidly changing environment like a new virus, where we want to act fast but àlso have limited information. Now, you may think that individual rights always trump societal rights. I don’t. We have different ethics guiding us. But I don’t think you can say that eugenics proves that is how we should act now. Eugenics shows us that pinning public policy to science without acknowledging the ethics that undergird the actions is a massive problem. And we need to rely on the best science, while acknowledging the limitations of our knowledge, while determining the ethical arguments for different actions.

  3. Amanda, good comment. Could you give me an example of an area where you think individual rights do not trump societal rights? I say this as somebody who doesn’t really believe in societal rights in the first place, so we probably will not agree on this issue, but I would like to understand better where you are coming from.

  4. It is interesting that the word “Nazi” is mentioned. Because we might be living under a Nazi regime today if our country had not instituted a draft in WWII—a major infringement of personal rights, from which so many died. And yet, which managed to save our USAmerican way of life.

    In early 1945, Congress even passed a draft of female nurses, although the war wound down and implementation was not necessary. But for years, a draft of men was in place. And everyone went: Mel Brooks, Clark Gable…. (It wasn’t like Vietnam when the well-off got a doctor’s note for bone spurs or a spot in graduate school.)

    Was our nation wrong to choose societal over personal rights during world wars?

    As far as societal rights regarding vaccination, I do believe that contagious illnesses may require a mandate in some group settings.

    Thus I believe businesses and schools have the right to mandate vaccines for measles, chicken pox, and Covid. But NOT for HPV.

    Having worked with cancers of the head and neck, I understand the danger of HPV. The percentage of adults younger than age 50 who are diagnosed with HPV-related cancer of the tonsils is growing every year. HPV is also a risk factor for other cancers, including cervical cancer in women. I encourage everyone to get that vaccination.

    But I do NOT think it should be mandated because it is not very contagious. Sexual transmission, deep kissing. Not a typical workplace or school activity. Not easily transmitted to others nearby. Not like Sars-CoV-2.

    I have honestly never heard the term “settled science” before. Settling is the antithesis of the scientists I know, who are always looking for a new particle or species, a new treatment or device.

  5. Naismith, it is ironic that you support the draft given that the First Presidency of the Church strongly came out against the draft in 1945.

    From the First Presidency statement:

    ““1. By taking our sons at the most impressionable age of their adolescence and putting them into army camps under rigorous military discipline, we shall seriously endanger their initiative thereby impairing one of the essential elements of American citizenship. While on its face the suggested plan might not seem to visualize the army camp training, yet there seems little doubt that our military leaders contemplate such a period, with similar recurring periods after the boys are placed in the reserves.

    “2. By taking our boys from their homes, we shall deprive them of parental guidance and control at this important period of their youth, and there is no substitute for the care and love of a mother for a young son.

    “3. We shall take them out of school and suffer their minds to be directed in other channels, so that very many of them after leaving the army, will never return to finish their schooling, thus over a few years materially reducing the literacy of the whole nation.

    “4. We shall give opportunity to teach our sons not only the way to kill but also, in too many cases, the desire to kill, thereby increasing lawlessness and disorder to the consequent upsetting of the stability of our national society. God said at Sinai, “Thou shalt not kill.”

    “5. We shall take them from the refining, ennobling, character-building atmosphere of the home, and place them under a drastic discipline in an environment that is hostile to most of the finer and nobler things of home and of life.

    “6. We shall make our sons the victims of systematized allurements to gamble, to drink, to smoke, to swear, to associate with lewd women, to be selfish, idle, irresponsible save under restraint of force, to be common, coarse, and vulgar, all contrary to and destructive of the American home.

    “7. We shall deprive our sons of any adequate religious training and activity during their training years, for the religious element of army life is both inadequate and ineffective.

    “8. We shall put them where they may be indoctrinated with a wholly un-American view of the aims and purposes of their individual lives, and of the life of the whole people and nation, which are founded on the ways of peace, whereas they will be taught to believe in the ways of war.

    “9. We shall take them away from all participation in the means and measures of production to the economic loss of the whole nation.

    “10. We shall lay them open to wholly erroneous ideas of their duties to themselves, to their family, and to society in the matter of independence, self-sufficiency, individual initiative, and what we have come to call American manhood.

    “11. We shall subject them to encouragement in a belief that they can always live off the labors of others through the government or otherwise.

    “12. We shall make possible their building into a military caste which from all human experience bodes ill for that equality and unity which must always characterize the citizenry of a republic.

    “13. By creating an immense standing army, we shall create to our liberties and free institutions a threat foreseen and condemned by the founders of the Republic, and by the people of this country from that time till now. Great standing armies have always been the tools of ambitious dictators to the destruction of freedom.

    “14. By the creation of a great war machine, we shall invite and tempt the waging of war against foreign countries, upon little or no provocation; for the possession of great military power always breeds thirst for domination, for empire, and for a rule by might not right.

    “15. By building a huge armed establishment, we shall belie our protestations of peace and peaceful intent and force other nations to a like course of militarism, so placing upon the peoples of the earth crushing burdens of taxation that with their present tax load will hardly be bearable, and that will gravely threaten our social, economic, and governmental systems.

    “16. We shall make of the whole earth one great military camp whose separate armies, headed by war-minded officers, will never rest till they are at one another’s throats in what will be the most terrible contest the world has ever seen.

    “17. All the advantages for the protection of the country offered by a standing army may be obtained by the National Guard system which has proved so effective in the past and which is unattended by the evils of entire mobilization.

    “Responsive to the ancient wisdom, ‘Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it,’ obedient to the divine message that heralded the birth of Jesus the Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the world, ‘. . . on earth peace, good will toward men,’ and knowing that our Constitution and the Government set up under it were inspired of God and should be preserved to the blessing not only of our own citizenry but, as an example, to the blessing of all the world, we have the honor respectfully to urge that you do your utmost to defeat any plan designed to bring about the compulsory military service of our citizenry. Should it be urged that our complete armament is necessary for our safety, it may be confidently replied that a proper foreign policy, implemented by an effective diplomacy, can avert the dangers that are feared. What this country needs and what the world needs, is a will for peace, not war. God will help our efforts to bring this about.”


    I would add that with the hindsight of history, support for the war effort during WWII was so strong that no draft was needed. Unlike many other wars, the United States had actually been attacked at Pearl Harbor, and the war was morally justified. But the First Presidency did not support the draft, and neither should we.

    So, to answer your question, yes, it was morally wrong to have a draft during WWII, in addition to being unnecessary. And the First Presidency agrees with me.

    It is also morally wrong to support any vaccine mandates, masks mandates, travel mandates or any lockdowns in response to this virus, which is not a danger to the vast majority of people. And, again, the First Presidency has never supported government mandates for any of these things. They have asked people to voluntarily wear masks and get vaccinated.

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