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1990s-2000: Recovering Eugenics History: Recognition & Regret

"Doing history means building bridges between the past and present, observing both banks of the river, taking an active part on both sides.... Escape is not preoccupation with the past, but a determined focus on the present and the future that is blind to the legacy of the past which brands us and with which we must live."
Bernhard Schlink, The Reader

After 1970, public interest in eugenics faded, despite the growing body of academic scholarship on eugenics history. The American eugenics movement, apparently lost from public consciousness over the past generation, reemerged from obscurity in the 1990s in debates over the uses of genetics in health care, controversies over abortion, and efforts to promote cultural diversity and combat racism. Holocaust studies programs and memorials have challenged us to examine America's leading role in the international eugenics movement.

The Human Genome Project, the explosion of discoveries in "new human genetics," and the expanded use of new reproductive technologies to permit genetic selection have brought the controversies of eugenics into the public limelight. Mindful of the power of human genetics to shape our beliefs about ourselves and others and to inspire discriminatory policies and practices, interdisciplinary panels of experts -- representing law, medicine, and science -- have developed ethical, legal, and scientific guidelines for uses of human genetics research. Historians have assumed a new role in these endeavors, as they continue to restore the public amnesia of eugenics history and challenge us to consider the hidden legacies of eugenics in public and private life.

We have entered an era of recognition and regret. Revelations of the human abuses of eugenics programs on every continent appear with increasing frequency. Some nations and states have publicly apologized for coerced or forced sterilizations, often in response to lawsuits. Sweden, Japan, Denmark, and the Canadian province of Alberta have paved the way for official expressions of recognition and regret. In January, 2001, the Virginia state legislature passed a resolution officially censuring the American eugenics movement and expressing their "profound regret" for Virginia's role in it. Virginia is the first state to do so.

For contemporary perspectives on eugenics history, see:

DNA Learning Center, Eugenics Exhibit
Facing History and Ourselves
Eugenics and The Misuse of Genetic Information to Restrict Reproductive Freedom, Board of Directors of the American Society of Human Genetics, 1998

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