Eugenics protest, circa 1971. (Southern Conference Educational Fund via UCLA)
This August 9, the world remembers with pain the International Day of the United States’ Crimes against Humanity.
The list of crimes of all kinds committed by the various governments of the United States exceeds all estimates. Especially when it comes to explaining the levels of evil to which voracious economic and oppressive social policies can lead. From wars of invasion of countries to which they are trying to enslave, to experiences of subjugation and physical and psychological destruction of men, women, children and the elderly, everything has been valid in the history of the American empire. And, as a singular fact, it must be pointed out that not only those behaviours with different dosages of criminality have been applied outside its borders, but they have also been turned against its own people.
One of these twentieth-century initiatives involved the rise of eugenics, portrayed as “science”. Advocating “the betterment of the human race,” proponents of eugenics supported the sterilization of those they deemed unfit to reproduce.
Under California’s eugenics law, first passed in 1909, any person committed to a state institution could be sterilized. Many of the patients were committed by court order, while others were involuntarily taken by family members who were unwilling or unable to care for them. And once a patient was admitted, medical superintendents had the legal power to recommend and authorize the operation.
Eugenic policies were applied along with entrenched hierarchies of race, class, gender, and ability. Working class youth, especially African-American youth, became targets of hospitalization and forced sterilization during the height of these policies.
Eugenic thinking in the United States was also utilized to support racist policies such as the anti-blending laws and the Immigration Act of 1924. Anti-Mexican sentiment, in particular, was driven by theories that Mexican and Mexican-American immigrants were “racially inferior”. Politicians and officials at the time often described Mexicans as inherently less intelligent, immoral, hyper-fertile, and criminally inclined.
These stereotypes also appeared in reports written by state authorities, who described Mexicans and their descendants as “immigrants of an undesirable type”. If their existence in the United States was undesirable, then so was their reproduction.
Many of the parents of the Mexican-born patients did everything in their power to prevent their children from being subjected to surgery. It was they who confronted the sterilization program in California. They contacted the Mexican consulate, lawyers and church representatives to try to prevent their children from being sterilized. In this way, they sought to protect them from the power of a state that was and is racist, from its highest echelons down through a significant number of its institutions.
Thus, in the first half of the century, approximately 60,000 people were sterilized through such eugenic programs in the United States. Different laws in 32 states allowed public officials in institutions, both in public health and social work, to sterilize people they deemed “unfit” to have children. California was a leader in these “social engineering efforts,” as one of its governors put it in 1921. Between the 1920s and 1950s, some 20,000 people-one third of the national total-were sterilized in that state because they were considered “mentally ill and disabled”.
Another factor taken into account was the colour of the skin. Long before the rise of Nazism in Germany, American scientists believed that anyone who was not “purely white” should not be encouraged to reproduce his or her species, and so thousands of African Americans were sterilized “so that this accursed race will not continue to give birth to demons,” as William Joseph Simmons, one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan, once stated.
Under the “Virginia Forced Sterilization Act”, between 7,000 and 8,000 forced sterilizations were also performed in this State. It is not known how many men and women were sterilized, and the state of Virginia still refuses to release this information under the cover of patient privacy. The idea of those who pushed the legislation is that by ending the offspring of people in this situation, they would also end them, in order to build the “ideal society”.
These policies of “racial cleansing” continued to manifest themselves very strongly until the 1950s. From then on they diminished, although some pockets remained, such as the state of North Carolina, where eugenics was practiced until well into the 1970s. In California, it was not until 1979 that the Sacramento legislature repealed the state law that had brought so much pain to tens of thousands of African-Americans and Latinos.
While states, their judges, and their police officers are ultimately responsible for implementing policies of discrimination and racism, it must not be forgotten that behind every sterilization performed there are men and women who engage in it, acting as executioners of others, determined to permanently undermine and deny the possibility of something as natural as reproduction.
The same recipe applied to the indigenous peoples of Central America
Outside the borders, U.S. officials considered sterilization “an export commodity” to help friendly leaders. The idea, which emerged during Harry Truman’s tenure in the White House, prompted some scientists, worthy prototypes of the Joseph Menguele School, to raise the stakes. Thus, they added to the sterilization plans “to avoid demographic outbreaks”, the need to conduct new “experiments”.
Thus they arrived in Honduras and Guatemala. In the latter country, Juan José Arévalo governed, and although he was well known by his people for certain administrative reforms, he opened the door to these veritable monsters who were eager to use the poor of that country as laboratory animals.
Between 1946 and 1948, experiments were conducted under the name of “Normal Exposure and Inoculation Syphilis”. In other words, prisoners, prostitutes and soldiers with indigenous heritage were innoculated with the disease. All of them became infected, and as is now the case with Covid-19, each of these carriers transmitted it to many others, especially in the case of women who worked as prostitutes in poor neighbourhoods or near barracks. Syphilis and gonorrhea became commonplace in a society that was not equipped for such a health-care blow.
At the head of this lethal operation was doctor John C. Cutler, who performed these ‘jobs’ for the US Public Health Service, for what is now the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the US national health institutes and the Guatemalan government itself.
Dr. Cutler had previously participated in similar experiments at the Terre Haute prison, in which volunteer prisoners were infected with gonorrhea.Cutler also later participated in the final stages of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. While the Tuskegee experiment followed the natural progression of syphilis in those already infected, in Guatemala, doctors deliberately infected healthy people with disease, some of which can be fatal if left untreated. The goal of the study was to determine the effect of penicillin on the prevention and treatment of venereal diseases. The researchers paid syphilis-infected prostitutes to have sex with prisoners, while other subjects became infected by inoculating them directly with the bacteria. Through intentional exposure to gonorrhea, syphilis and chancroid, a total of 1,308 people participated in the experiments. Of that group, with an age range of 10-72, many died, while others received some form of treatment. In this way, John Charles Cutler used healthy individuals to improve what he called “pure science”.
In a highly racialized and racist country, the idea that government scientists, drunk with power to “experiment” as they had already done in African countries, would deliberately and secretly infect black men with a debilitating and sometimes fatal disease cannot be seen as an anomaly. However, the “study” became known as “America’s Nuremberg” (to equate its impact on ethics) and to link it to the horrors of the repugnant Nazi medical experiments. The study avoided considering the involuntary sexual activities of the study participants, or their parents, since syphilis is, of course, primarily a sexually transmitted disease. The assumption that the men in the study were already infected, seems to make the racism worse, although the simple fact that they stopped treatment is what should be even more frightening.
Lastly, it should be noted that all of these experiments and many more that have come to light to this day, were authorized, facilitated and logistically aided by U.S. governments as state policy applied to poor or marginalized populations. The excuse to test viruses on healthy bodies or to encourage contagion of infected people with others who are not, has a level of criminality that is overwhelming, beyond the fact that some of these pseudo-scientists defend their theories with the usual crutch of: “it is necessary to do this so that in the future certain diseases can be eradicated”. We should also remember that these racist and genocidal theories could not have been carried out if it were not for the complicity of governments that cannot argue that they did not know what they were doing. They preferred the perks of “Alliances for Progress”, “Free Trade Agreements” or “Aid Plans”, to being loyal to their own people.