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Sterilization Particulars

Progressives in the 20th century often described California as an Eden of enlightenment. But this Pacific Eden produced an enormous amount of rotten fruit. The Human Betterment Foundation, a ludicrously named California think tank from the 1920s, was an example of the brutal and heartless ideology that masqueraded as enlightenment in the state. The Human Betterment Foundation was nothing more than a propaganda mill for eugenics.

The Los Angeles Times reported on Wednesday that the Nazis drew inspiration from its work. “California civic leaders helped popularize eugenics around the world, including Nazi Germany,” reported the Times. Dr. Fritz Lenz, a premier Nazi eugenicist, wrote to the foundation: “You were so kind to send…new information about the sterilization particulars in California…These practical experiences are also very valuable for us in Germany. For this I thank you.”

Paul Popenoe, the foundation’s leading researcher, “lauded Hitler as a visionary, quoted from ‘Mein Kamp,’ and concluded that Germany’s effort was in ‘accord with the best thought of eugenicists in all civilized countries,'” reports the Times. Popenoe later became one of America’s most celebrated marriage counselors, says the Times, a “pop psychology guru with best-selling books, a syndicated newspaper column, articles in Ladies Home Journal and appearances on Art Linkletter’s ‘House Party’ television story.”

Sacramento banker Charles M. Goethe, a member of the Human Betterment Foundation’s board, visited Germany in the 1930s and wrote back to Ezra Gosney, the foundation’s head: “You will be interested to know that your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinion of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in the epoch-making program.… I want you, my dear friend, to carry this thought with you for the rest of your life, that you have really jolted into action a great government of 60,000,000 people.”

The Times acknowledges that liberals, from Margaret Sanger to John Maynard Keynes, endorsed “eugenic sterilization.” The Human Betterment Foundation’s members represented a roll-call of the liberal vanguard in California: “David Starr Jordan, Stanford University’s first president; Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler; Nobel Prize-winning physicist and Caltech head Robert A. Millikan; USC President Rufus B. von KleinSmid; and Lewis M. Terman, a Stanford psychologist who developed the IQ test.”

From 1909 through the 1960s, 20,000 people were sterilized in California state hospitals. The progressives viewed society’s undesirables as animals in need of spaying. The Times says Popenoe visited the state’s mental hospitals and reported on its grisly practices. In one memo he wrote: “I found one case, which they didn’t know about, where they had sterilized the same man twice, two years apart…He was an unintelligent Italian, and I suppose he didn’t know enough to tell them that he had been through the mill before, and they missed the fact in their own records.” In another memo he wrote of a convention of the Assn. of Railway Surgeons at the Mendocino state hospital at which a conventioneer had the “special honor” of sterilizing two women deemed feebleminded. “Both women died in agony a few days later,” wrote Popenoe. “Autopsy showed that instead of tying the fallopian tubes, the surgeon had tied up the ureters, so they both died of kidney poisoning from being unable to urinate.”

This didn’t faze Popenoe. He could placidly write that in “modern civilizations, where the weak and helpless are protected so carefully, it is not possible to depend on Nature to solve this problem of the survival of the unfit…Sterilization was seen to be not a punishment but a protection, alike to the afflicted and their families, to society, and to posterity.”

Here is the Golden State’s legacy of liberal beneficence.

George Neumayr
George Neumayr
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George Neumayr, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is co-author of No Higher Power: Obama’s War on Religious Freedom.
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