Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2022

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

William Lynch


Contemporary concerns with technologies like CRISPR and the proliferation of state laws restricting abortion have led people to wonder if we are witnessing a return of eugenics. I analyze the development and evolution of eugenic ideas and policies throughout the 20th century, using the state of Michigan as a frame of reference. In examining the eugenic theories and policies psychiatrists and physicians endorsed, I demonstrate that eugenics was a key component of preventive public medicine in the first two decades of the 20th century. I show how they educated the public on eugenics based on both environmentalist and hereditarian ideas and stressed that the suppression of individual rights to reproductive autonomy were necessary to improve the general welfare of society, an argument that influenced American jurists to endorse sterilization as a justifiable police power measure. I then reveal how these core principles remained embedded in both medical genetics and population control. Although medical geneticists shunned research on the inheritance of social behaviors, they remained committed to applying preventive genetic medicine for genetic physical and mental diseases and counseling individuals to not have children based on their genes. Population planners feared the catastrophic consequences of overpopulation and suppressed poor women’s right to reproductive autonomy around the world to address what they believed were crucial issues of resource depletion, economic development, and political stability during the Cold War. I conclude by looking at how eugenic ideas continue to suppress the reproductive rights of individuals while Michigan leaders have failed to adequately address the state’s eugenic past. Although contemporary notions of individualism in relation to reproduction prevent a resurgence of eugenics like that in the first half of the 20th century, current attempts to restrict reproductive rights are a cause for concern, and addressing our eugenic past is crucial to ensuring these rights are not violated.