It’s easy to think of eugenics as something that happened far away from us, with ideals alien to our character. Yet Adolf Hitler himself studied—and was inspired by—American laws that prevented the birth of people “injurious to the racial stock.”

Eugenics—the desire to increase qualities deemed to be favorable within the gene pool, with sterilization as one of its primary tools—isn’t owned by Nazi Germany, and it hasn’t gone away.

Far from being a fringe movement, the eugenics movement cast its net over everyone from Planned Parenthood leader Margaret Sanger to Save the Redwoods League co-founder Madison Grant. The movement’s creator, Francis Galton, was cousin to none other than Charles Darwin. The desire to improve the human race was tied up in what at the time seemed like a noble pursuit to make a better world, one that comes chillingly close to ideals we cherish today.

The arguable capital of the eugenics movement in the U.S. was even closer to home—in Northern California, where one third of America’s sterilizations occurred. And the Sonoma State Home, an institution opened in 1891 for the developmentally disabled, likely sterilized more people than any other institutional setting in the world.

“It was a mostly male and white institution […] who thought they were taking on the biggest problems of the day in Northern California and in the West more generally,” said historian and author of Eugenic Nation Alexandra Minna Stern.

While conducting her research, Stern discovered the sterilization records of over 20,000 people in a government office in Sacramento and calculated that nearly one-third of Puerto Rican women were sterilized by the U.S. government between 1933 and 1968. Also troubling is that what made eugenics so appealing in its 1930s heyday overlaps with the core of Northern Californian ideals: our progressivism, our connection to nature, our frontier sensibility.

While eugenics is embedded in our history, it doesn’t belong to the past. The instincts that popularized the eugenics movement—a desire for purity, the impulse to control others’ bodies, the catchall categorizations—are gaining strength today.

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