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A eugenics poster

When most people hear the word “eugenics,” they immediately think of the Nazis. And for good reason: the Nazis force-sterilized over 400,000 people and brutally murdered another 300,000, all in the name of a particular approach to eugenics called “racial hygiene.” Yet the truth is that eugenics captured the imagination of people on both sides of the political spectrum. This included progressives across Europe and North America, many of whom saw it as playing an integral role in progressive social reform. 

Eugenics isn’t a new idea. Though the term itself was coined in 1883, proposals for improving the “human stock” through methods like selective breeding dates back at least to the ancient Greeks. Eugenics practices — often based on what we now describe as “ableist” beliefs — have been common throughout history. It is a monster that just won’t die, no matter how many times people have tried to bury it.

One of the earliest discussions of eugenics comes from Plato’s “Republic.” In outlining what a just city-state would look like, Plato’s fourth-century B.C.E. treatise proposed a rigged lottery to...

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