There was a time, about a century ago, when eugenics — the study and practice of selective human breeding in order to “improve” the human race — was viewed as a serious scientific endeavor, applauded by many of America’s leading intellectuals and political leaders. But as the years passed, eugenics came increasingly to be associated with the involuntary sterilization of disfavored people, ranking of the worth of various races, and bizarre ideas like the claim that the value of a human can be determined by a series of skull measurements. The atrocities of the Nazis, with their murders of children and others with mental and physical disabilities in the name of “racial hygiene,” was the final blow, relegating what was once mainstream thinking to a fringe inhabited mainly by racist extremists and kooks. After World War II, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, approved by a unanimous vote of the United Nations, banned the use of “negative” eugenic measures like sterilization.
But through the years, a small coterie of “race scientists,” members of racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and a fringe of the so-called population control movement, have continued to fly the eugenics flag. The Pioneer Fund was started in 1937 to pursue “race betterment” and the propagation of the descendants of the original white colonists, and it is still active today. Recent decades have seen a number of eugenics enthusiasts in fairly prominent positions. Garrett Hardin, who told an interviewer in 1992 that he supported abortion as an “effective population control” because a “fetus is of so little value, there’s no point in worrying about it,” was a longtime professor of human ecology at the University of California. Roger Pearson — who once said, “If a nation with a more advanced, more specialized, or any way superior set of genes mingles with, instead of exterminating an inferior tribe, then it commits racial suicide” — was the founder and longtime editor of the Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies. There were others, but by and large reputable scientists and intellectuals avoided eugenics like the plague.
So it’s not much of a surprise that Dan Stein — the president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the most important organization in the network of anti-immigration groups built up over decades by the late John Tanton — would want to distance himself and his group from such ideas. And he did try. “Eugenics,” Stein wrote in a 2004 editorial for the Kansas City Star, “is pure junk science, and it is utterly unrelated to FAIR’s efforts to bring order to immigration in America.” He attacked those who noted FAIR’s eugenicist ties as “McCarthyist.”
Eugenics certainly is junk science. But the truth is that Tanton, the founder of FAIR and the architect of today’s nativist movement, was a eugenics enthusiast for most of his life. As early as 1969, Tanton wrote Michigan officials asking if state laws allowed involuntary sterilization; his concern, he wrote, was “a local pair of sisters who have nine illegitimate children between them.” In 1975, he wrote a paper entitled “The Case for Passive Eugenics,” arguing for supposedly less intrusive measures like limiting childbearing to women between the ages of 20 and 35. Starting in 1988, he began soliciting Pioneer Fund grants for FAIR, only stopping in 1994, after receiving some $1.3 million but suffering through years of bad press. Even so, he wrote a German academic in 1994 to defend the fund, saying its critics were the “hard (Marxist) left.” In 1996, he started his own eugenicist group, the Society for Genetic Education, explaining in a letter to Otis Graham, another eugenicist, that he was using “the term genetics rather than eugenics” as a public relations strategy. Over the years, Tanton had friendly correspondences with other eugenicists, including Hardin, who was for years a FAIR trustee. Two other former FAIR trustees, Sarah Epstein and Donald Collins Sr., are also advocates for involuntary sterilization, according to the Center for New Community. Others connected to FAIR and other Tanton groups have, over the years, expressed similar ideas.
“Do we leave it to individuals to decide that they are the intelligent ones who should have more kids? And more troublesome, what about the less intelligent who logically should have less? Who is going to break the bad news [to less intelligent individuals], and how will it be implemented?”
—Tanton, 1996 letter to eugenicist Robert K. Graham, who once started a sperm bank to collect the semen of Nobel-winning scientists
“Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all.”
—1968 essay by the late Garrett Hardin, Pioneer grant recipient and later FAIR trustee, who later also argued against aid for starving Africans because that would “encourage population growth”
“Yeah, so what? … What is your problem with that?”
—1997 response by Stein when asked about Hardin’s belief that only “intelligent” people should breed
“I, too, have a strong interest in genetics.”
—Tanton in a 1994 letter to Otis Graham that mentions that Harry Weyher, president of the Pioneer Fund, is a “mutual friend”
“There seems to be little danger of society’s being deprived of something valuable by the sterilization of all feeble-minded individuals.”
—Hardin assertion cited in a 1986 academic article
“Hitler’s reign in Nazi Germany did little to advance the discussion of eugenics among sensitive persons.”
—Tanton, in his 1975 paper “The Case for Passive Eugenics,” bemoaning the bad press that Adolf Hitler and his murderous eugenicist program brought to the once serious field of study
Terminally ill people have “a duty to die and get out of the way.”
—Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm in 1984, although Lamm later disputed the meaning of his citation. Lamm served for years on the FAIR board of directors and, in 2021, was on the organization’s advisory board
“The unwanted child is not the problem, but, rather, the wanted one that society, for diverse cultural reasons, demands.”
—Heiress Cordelia May Scaife, Tanton and FAIR’s chief funder for years, suggesting that even some wanted births should be prevented in order to control overpopulation
“Although we are conscious of the highly sensitive nature of this subject, we feel confident that the leadership position of the council in the population field can be used to greatly accelerate the availability of abortion services worldwide on an ‘abortion upon request’ basis.”
—1973 letter from Scaife’s office to the Population Council, which focused on overpopulation