UC Berkeley is disavowing its eugenic research fund after bioethicist and other faculty call it out
In late 2018, UC Berkeley bioethics professor Osagie K. Obasogie received a campus email about a research fund available to faculty members in the School of Public Health.
He was stunned by what he read.
The Genealogical Eugenic Institute Fund, the email said, supports research and education in eugenics — a field discredited after World War II as a horrifying ideology that sought to use science to improve the human race by promoting traits deemed superior and breeding out those judged undesirable. The judgments aligned strongly with social biases that favored white, able-bodied and financially stable people.
Eugenics was used as a justification for Hitler’s Nazi Germany to kill 6 million Jewish people, and U.S. authorities to forcibly sterilize more than 60,000 people in California and more than 30 other states largely in the early 20th century.
But Berkeley’s eugenic research fund has been very much active.
The $2.4-million fund was offering an annual payout of about $70,000 in fiscal year 2020 to support research and education on policies, practices and technologies that could “affect the distribution of traits in the human race,” including those related to family planning, infertility, assisted reproduction technologies, prenatal screening, abortion, gene editing and gene modification, the email said. That “modern definition of eugenics” included “perspectives that shed light on not only the benefits but also the limitations and the ethics of these alternative approaches to improving the human race.”
“I was shocked and dismayed,” Obasogie told the Los Angeles Times. He, along with a small group of faculty, raised their concerns with the email’s author, a former senior administrator.
Those alarm bells prompted the school to freeze the fund and launch a review into how the university could have accepted such a gift in its modern past — it came from a family trust to the University of California Board of Regents in 1975 — for research under the banner of a now-reviled ideology.
On Monday, School of Public Health Dean Michael C. Lu disclosed the existence of the fund to the wider school faculty. Lu, who took the school’s helm in July 2019, has asked for feedback on renaming and repurposing the fund, along with potential actions such as a public apology and a public education project on eugenics across UC campuses.
No evidence has yet surfaced that Berkeley used the money for eugenic research. Instead, it funded a genetic counseling training program, among other uses. But that does not absolve the school, Lu said.
“By accepting and using these funds over the past four decades, we must acknowledge that Berkeley Public Health has been a part of this horrific legacy of eugenics and its disastrous impacts,” Lu wrote in a letter Monday to the School of Public Health faculty. “It was wrong then. It is wrong now.”
Berkeley’s announcement comes as campuses across the nation are stepping up efforts to repudiate those who promoted eugenics, including high-profile university leaders, amid the nation’s intensifying racial justice movement.
In June, USC stripped the name of former university President Rufus B. von KleinSmid from a prominent campus building. Stanford University announced this month it would remove the name of its founding president, David Starr Jordan, from campus buildings and streets, while a high school bearing his name was recently changed to simply Jordan High by the Los Angeles Board of Education.
At the California Institute of Technology, hundreds of alumni and faculty are petitioning to strip its buildings of the name of Robert A. Millikan, a towering figure on campus who was Caltech’s first Nobel laureate — but also a leader of the Human Betterment Foundation, a Pasadena-based group whose advocacy of eugenics and forced sterilization influenced Nazi policies. Pomona College recently announced it would rename its Millikan Laboratory after nearly 1,000 community members signed a petition.
But Berkeley’s eugenic research fund highlights a reality that Obasogie and other ethicists say is insufficiently discussed: Eugenic thinking did not disappear after the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed. In some ways, it remains embedded in medicine and public health today.
In the United States, government and medical authorities no longer promote eugenics through laws allowing forced sterilization, for instance, or barring marriages with the “feeble-minded” or between races. About 20,000 people — disproportionately nonwhite and poor — in California institutions were sterilized under the state eugenic law, which was enacted in 1909 and repealed in 1979.
But the development of reproductive and genetic technologies today allows individuals to make some limited choices about what kinds of humans they deem most desirable and should be selected to live, said Alexandra Minna Stern, a University of Michigan expert on eugenics.
Those choices have been made possible by science’s ability to begin life outside a mother’s womb by joining egg and sperm through in vitro fertilization and assess the embryo’s traits through prenatal genetic testing, she said. Embryos with genetic markers for Down syndrome, for instance, may not be selected or may be subsequently aborted.
The advent of sperm banks allows would-be parents to select traits they desire — with the most popular donors being those who are white or Asian, at least 6 feet tall, athletic, with some college education, Stern said.
“Eugenics does exist today but it’s morphed and changed,” Stern said. “Some people call it ‘newgenics’ instead of eugenics.”
Deborah Bolnick, a University of Connecticut geneticist and associate professor of anthropology, said such modern issues raise moral and ethical questions. Some make a distinction between discredited state-sponsored eugenic practices, such as sterilization laws, and what many find to be the acceptable exercise of individual freedom to choose desired traits of a child. But it’s not so simple, she said.
When Bolnick poses such questions to her students, they typically believe it ethical to use technology to prevent agonized suffering and certain early death by choosing against embryos, for instance, with genetic markers for Tay Sachs disease.
But what about those with Down syndrome, who can lead happy and productive lives? Or the growing practice of sex selection, with boys overwhelmingly favored in places like China and India? In one case, Bolnick said, a deaf couple wanted to select an embryo for implantation that carried the hereditary form of deafness so the family could be part of the same community but the fertility doctor refused, believing the condition was a defect that should not be deliberately brought into the world.
Stern said some disability rights advocates are concerned about the technologies — such as those in the Down syndrome community who fear they involve “breeding them out,” she said. And yet the technologies can help those with fertility issues create the kind of family they desire, she added.
“This is where you get into really dicey terrain,” Stern said, with tension between supporting reproductive autonomy and “the eugenic baggage” of judgments about race, intelligence and disability.
Science walks a fine line between developments that can advance human progress and perpetuate injustice, university ethicists said.
Gene editing technologies, such as CRISPR-Cas9 — whose discovery won a Nobel Prize in chemistry this month for UC Berkeley biochemist Jennifer A. Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin — can alter DNA to help treat diseases but also potentially favor future generations with socially desirable skin colors, hair textures or height.
British physiologist Robert Edwards won the 2010 Nobel Prize as a pioneer in developing in vitro fertilization. Obasogie noted in a 2013 commentary that Edwards was also a member of the Eugenics Society in Britain for much of his career.
The ethicists also raise questions about power and privilege, noting that those who can afford to use these technologies today tend to be educated and affluent, similar to those promoting eugenics in years past.
“The line between using reproductive and genetic technologies to prevent heritable diseases versus enhancing future children so that they can partake in social privileges is fraught and not always clear,” Obasogie said. “This deserves our utmost attention to ensure that these technologies are not used to exacerbate inequalities.”
At Berkeley, Lu said it did not appear that the fund was ever used for the kind of eugenic research that devastated marginalized communities.
The eugenic fund was established by a family trust called the Rogers Family Foundation, which was created in 1960 by trustees and Alta Corp. Lu said they had not yet found much information about the foundation or corporation. The fund’s primary stated purpose was “the improvement of the human race through research and education in that field generally known as eugenics,” Obasogie said.
It was transferred to UC regents in 1975. It is not clear when the regents sent the funds to Berkeley, Lu said. The first documented expenditures were in 1987 to train genetic counselors — who typically help people with family planning or address inherited conditions — until the program was shut down in the 1990s.
Since 2000, about $1 million has been drawn from the account. The disbursements include $138,325 for the school’s budget deficit, $72,647 for financial aid for low-income students, $575,999 for student support and staff salary and benefits, $123,212 for travel and conferences, and the rest on office supplies, operations and journal subscriptions.
In recent years, the funds were primarily used by one faculty member, who has denied using them for eugenic research — an assertion supported by a review of the person’s academic activities, Lu said. The dean declined to name the faculty member because the fact-finding review was ongoing.
So far, faculty and staff have suggested that Berkeley repurpose the fund to increase financial aid for underrepresented minority students, support research with communities that have been disproportionately harmed by the eugenic ideology and establish an institute to stand against eugenics and racism.
Another recommendation is to create a “1907 Project,” named for the year the world’s first eugenic law was passed in Indiana, that would explore the centrality of eugenics in contemporary life sciences and public health through essays and UC-wide forums.
The activities are aimed at correcting what Obasogie says has been the failure of medicine, public health and other scientific fields to fully acknowledge and confront their central role in giving eugenic ideologies legitimacy in the past and understanding their legacy today.
“Regardless of what was done with the money, it was just wrong for us to take it in the first place,” Lu said. “It’s antithetical to everything that the school stands for.”
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