The Sterilization of America: A Cautionary History

RTB: “Eugenics, a word all but removed from America’s lexicon after World War II, is the science of improving the human race through controlled breeding.”

The Sterilization of America: A Cautionary History

    “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

    Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in Buck v. Bell, 1927

Eugenics, a word all but removed from America’s lexicon after World War II, is the “science” of improving the human race through controlled breeding. Much like the Trail of Tears, Tuskegee medical experiments, or the Japanese internment in this country, the word harkens us back to a shameful time most would just as soon forget.

That task is made easier by today’s politically-correct, sanitized text books in the nation’s school systems; they will ensure the next generation of American utopians will never know the pseudo-science which spawned Adolph Hitler’s horrific acts of ethnic cleansing was developed in American laboratories, and upheld by the highest court in the land.

Origins

At the turn of the 20th century, the American industrial machine was moving full steam ahead, fueled by a burgeoning working class and an endless influx of immigrants, mostly from southern and eastern Europe. In an age of invention, scientists, doctors and economists were elevated to elite status, as they churned out the latest economic and social theories of the day. Eventually, Social Darwinism gave way to a new philosophy, Progressivism.1

Progressive reformers sought a larger role for government to address the growing inner-city issues of crime, poverty and hunger that Industrialization left in its wake. For these social “visionaries,” who looked toward science to solve the problems caused by a rapidly changing world, eugenics was a ready-made tonic — prostitution, alcoholism, ignorance, birth defects, poverty, crime, could all be blamed on defective genes.

By 1883, Sir Francis Galton of Great Britain (Charles Darwin’s cousin) had coined the term eugenics — literally meaning “well-born” — to apply to his groundbreaking theories on genetics and social engineering. Galton believed his “moral philosophy” could improve the human species through encouraging society’s best and brightest to have more children.2

In the early 1900s, prominent American biologists Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin, influenced by Galton, led other scientists and physicians in developing a radical brand of eugenics that argued for government to weed out degenerate members of the proletariat. Under the auspices of “social responsibility,” involuntary sterilizations, genetic manipulation, race segregation and imprisonment were justified in order to save America from the high cost of treating defective individuals, who were responsible for the nation’s social ills. In addition, immigration of “undesirables” could be curbed through selective genetic screening and strict immigration quotas.

Scientists and researchers with agricultural backgrounds flocked to the new field of eugenics. Inspired by animal and plant breeding practices, official records offices were opened by Davenport, Laughlin and others, to collect and catalog human pedigrees. Much like a public library, organizations such as the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) and the American Breeders Association (ABA), filled endless rows of card catalogs with detailed information on family lineages and physical and personality traits, such as moodiness or stubbornness. Also documented were mental and behavioral traits, such as alcoholism, epilepsy and depression. These offices also consulted young couples on suitable marriage partners and other matters of family planning.3

The medical and scientific community worked overtime rolling out new studies to keep up with the need to support eugenicists’ latest claims. Researchers, trained by eugenicists, combed asylums, prisons and orphanages across the country with questionnaires on family genealogies. Experts fanned out to cover the lecture and exhibit circuits with the slogan: “Some Americans are born to be a burden on the rest.”4

Steve Selden, author of Inheriting Shame: The Story of Eugenics and Racism in America, documents the effects eugenics had on popular culture. Hollywood movies covered the subject, as did religious services and well-known authors in books. State Fairs hosted “Fitter Families Contests,” alongside the prized sow and biggest pumpkin contests. School curriculums from grade school to higher education included eugenics; top universities such as Harvard, Columbia, Cornell and Brown all offered courses on the “science.”

Eugenical Sterilization Law

In 1907, Indiana became the first state to pass a law permitting involuntary sterilizations on eugenic grounds; at least 30 states would follow suit. Many of them simply adopted a model “eugenical sterilization law,” crafted by the ERO’s Harry Laughlin, which called for compulsory sterilizations of the “socially inadequate.” By the mid-1920s, more than 3,000 people had been sterilized against their wills. These included the homeless, orphans, epileptics, the blind and deaf. Also sterilized were those who scored poorly on IQ tests, who were diagnosed as being “feebleminded.”

During that time, Congress also got into the act. Hearings were held by the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization in the House of Representatives to investigate claims that eastern European countries were intentionally “exporting” degenerates to the America. Effective lobbying by Harry Laughlin, an “expert agent” for the committee, led to the passage of anti-immigration laws with strict country quotas that favored northern and western European nations.5

Three Generations of Imbeciles

In 1924, a teenager in Charlottesville, Virginia, Carrie Buck, was chosen as the first person to be sterilized under the state’s newly adopted eugenics law. Ms. Buck, whose mother resided in an asylum for the epileptic and feebleminded, was accused of having a child out of wedlock. She was diagnosed as promiscuous and the probable parent of “socially inadequate offspring.”

A lawsuit challenging the sterilization was filed on Ms. Buck’s behalf. Harry Laughlin, having never met Ms. Buck, wrote a deposition condemning her and her 7-month old child, Vivian. Scientists from the ERO attended the trial to testify to Vivian’s “backwardness.” In the end, the judge ruled in the state’s favor.

On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark case Buck v. Bell (1927), ruled 8-1 to uphold the sterilization of Ms. Buck on the grounds she was a “deficient” mother. Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., an adherent of eugenics, declared “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

According to University of Virginia historian Paul Lombardo, evidence was later revealed that supports the claim that Carrie Buck’s child was not the result of promiscuity; Ms. Buck had been raped by the nephew of her foster parents. School records also indicate her daughter Vivian was a solid student and had made the honor roll at age 7. A year later, Vivian died of an intestinal illness.

The Aftermath

By the late 1930s, the study of eugenics began to lose its luster in America. Increasingly, independent scientists began disproving eugenicists’ claims. Earlier data was revealed to be skewed and biased towards Americans of western European descent, particularly those inhabiting New England states. By 1939, financial support from individuals and foundations, such as cereal maker J.H. Kellogg and Mrs. E.H. Harriman, the wife of a railway magnate, had dried up and the Eugenics Records Office was forced to close its doors. However, involuntary sterilizations continued in this country through the late 1970s.6

May 2, 2002, marked the 75th anniversary of the shameful Buck v. Bell decision, which has never been overruled and was cited in a federal appeals case as recently as last year.7 The Court’s action in Buck led to the forced sterilization of more than 65,000 Americans by 1979.8 To mark the anniversary of the Buck decision, Virginia Governor Mark Warner formally apologized for his state’s role, saying: “The eugenics movement was a shameful effort in which state government never should have been involved.”

As for the legacy of Harry Laughlin, his model law was adopted by Nazi Germany in 1934 and led to the sterilization of 350,000 German “feebleminded” people. In 1936, Laughlin was honored with a degree from the University of Heidelberg for his efforts in eugenics. By 1940, Germany adopted a policy of euthanasia for German children and adults with birth defects and mental disorders. In 1941, “special actions” were ordered to exterminate Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirable elements.”9

What Tomorrow May Bring

The eugenics issue has begun to rear its ugly head once again on the politically explosive issues of immigration quotas, embryo research and human cloning. Bioethicists and religious opponents lob accusations at genetic scientists, saying they are “playing God” or seeking to create “designer babies.” Germany, which is still haunted by its history of Nazi eugenics, has banned its scientists from most embryonic research and creating cloned embryos. Meanwhile, in France, political opponents of ultra-nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen, accuse him of eugenic-like anti-immigration policies.

Many in this country are also weary of rampant immigration. Pat Buchanan’s latest book, The Death of the West, warns of a “clear and present danger” from declining birth rates and uncontrolled immigration of peoples of “different colors, creed, and cultures.” In the wake of September 11, dozens of Americans of Middle-eastern descent were the targets of unwarranted reprisals.

If we are not careful, the current push in this country for biometrics — the use of genetic markers, facial recognition, hand-scanning, fingerprint scanning and eye scanning for identification purposes — may provide a database for future generations who, ignorant of the past, may be condemned to repeat it.


Footnotes

1Allen G.E. “Social Origins of Eugenics.” Washington University.

2 Carlson, E. “Scientific Origins of Eugenics.” State University of New York at Stony Brook.

3 Id.

4Selden, S. “Eugenics Popularization.” University of Maryland. http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/html/eugenics/essay6text.html

5 Micklos, D. “Eugenics Research Methods.” Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/html/eugenics/essay3text.html

6 Allen G.E. “Flaws in Eugenics Research.” Washington University. http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/html/eugenics/essay5text.html

7Vaughn v. Ruoff 253 F.3d 1124 (8th Cir. 2001). “Plaintiff’s wife was diagnosed as mildly retarded and had a daughter born with health problems. The state division of family services took custody of the daughter, finding that plaintiffs failed to maintain a sanitary home and could not demonstrate an ability to rear her properly. Despite birth control, plaintiff became pregnant again. The state again took custody of the second child for the same reasons. The social worker told plaintiffs that if either would get sterilized, their chances of getting the children back would be improved. Plaintiff agreed to sterilization.

About three months later, the state informed plaintiffs that it would recommend termination of their parental rights. Plaintiffs brought due process claims and the social worker argued qualified immunity.” The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri found the plaintiff had a protected liberty interest in the Fourteenth Amendment, and that the social worker’s conduct violated her due process rights.

The judgment was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. However, the appeals court, citing Buck, acknowledged that “involuntary sterilization is not always unconstitutional if it is a narrowly tailored means to achieve a compelling government interest.”

8 405 A.2d 851 (1979) In 1979, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Bertram Polow approved the sterilization of Lee Ann Grady, an 18-year-old Down’s syndrome girl, as her parents requested. Judge Polow ruled that even though no life-endangering emergency was involved, the operation was clearly in the girl’s best interest.
9Lombardo, P.A. “Eugenic Sterilization Laws.” University of Virginia. http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/html/eugenics/essay8text.html


References

  • Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement, Dolan DNA Learning Center, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. http://www.eugenicsarchive.org
  • Allen, G.E. 1986. “The Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, 1910-1940: An Essay On Institutional History.” Osiris (second series), 2: 225-264.
  • Allen G.E. 1987. “The Role of Experts in Scientific Controversy.” In Scientific Controversy: Case Studies in the Resolution and Closure of Disputes in Science and Technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Micklos, D. “None Without Hope: Buck vs. Bell at 75.” Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. http://www.dnalc.org/resources/buckvbell.html
  • Witkowski, J. “Traits Studied by Eugenicists.” Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
  • Selden, S. 1999. Inheriting Shame: The Story of Eugenics and Racism in America. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Lombardo, P.A. 1982. “Eugenic Sterilization in Virginia: Aubrey Strode and the Case of Buck v. Bell.” Doctoral dissertation, University of Virginia.
  • Lombardo, P.A. 1985.”Three Generations, No Imbeciles: New Light on Buck v. Bell.” New York University Law Review 60: 30-62.
  • Lombardo, P.A. 1988. “Miscegenation, Eugenics and Racism: Historical Footnotes to Loving v. Virginia.” University of California Davis Law Review 21: 421-452.
  • Lombardo, P.A. “Eugenic Laws Against Race Mixing.” University of Virginia. http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/html/eugenics/essay7text.html


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