Imagine today if Donald Trump made a decree that all morons and imbeciles must be sterilized to prevent further contamination of the American gene pool. Could you imagine the uproar? Even Fox News couldn’t spin that Twitter rant, but sadly, forced sterilization is still constitutional in the United States. Ninety years ago, in the infamous case of Buck vs. Bell, Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr., declared by many as the wisest man in the United States, wrote the majority opinion summarized by this one sentence:”Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The history of Buck vs. Bell and America’s dark marriage to eugenics is detailed in the fascinating book Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen.
Eugenics is defined as the purposeful cleansing of defects in the gene pool to improve a particular species. For example, eugenics is commonly used today when dogs are cross bred to remove negative health traits: English Bulldog + Labrador = Bullador. Human eugenics started in 19th century Europe with the advent of Social Darwinism. Essentially, people thought that “survival of the fittest” not only applied to animals but also to racist white guys. The whitest of the white, Nordic Europeans, viewed themselves as the beez neez and thought all other races should bow to their paleness. Many geneticists believed that every trait, belief, attribute, and characteristic of a person was passed on from their parents. There was very little understanding of the environmental impact on behavior and subsequently all vices were blamed on bad genes. Drunkenness in the Irish. Criminality in the Italians. Promiscuity in the Poles. Usury in the Jews. Imbecility in the poor. Basically, anyone who was not a white-Northern-European-rich-pious-fricker was deemed to have poor progeny.
At the turn of the 20th century, America was becoming inundated with all sorts of new immigrants: tides of Irish, Jews, Eastern Europeans, South Americans, and Chinese. These new immigrants oftentimes lived in squalor and were more likely to commit crimes, have large families, and be less educated compared to their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. Hence, “real “Americans decided to clean up the gene pool and the States began to pass laws that allowed the sterilization of anyone who had unappealing traits. Intelligence tests were given out to see whether people were imbeciles or morons. These tests were completely erroneous and in many cases found that half of test takers were mentally unfit.
The Immigration Act of 1924 was passed in direct connection to eugenic beliefs on racial inferiority. It drastically decreased the number of immigrants from countries that were not Anglo-Saxon in origin. The climax of the eugenics movement occurred in 1927 when Buck vs. Bell went to the supreme court to determine whether Virginia had the right to sterilize Carrie Buck – a poor-white-southerner. The case was a complete sham. Carrie was not an imbecile but rather an intelligent girl who had the bad luck of being raped and blamed for promiscuity. Carrie’s lawyer was actually on the prosecutions payroll and she was not informed about any details of the case. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was a firm believer in the “survival of the fittest” and wrote that sterilization did not impede upon Miss. Buck’s constitutional rights.
The eugenics movement in America helped Hitler cement many of his policies during WWII. The Immigration Act of 1924 assisted the Holocaust by barring Jews from entering America. Nazi Lawyers, during the Nuremberg Trials, actually used the case of Buck vs. Bell as a justification for 1000’s of sterilizations. In total, the US sterilized over 70,000 people throughout the 20th century – the last forced sterilization was in 1981. Today, Buck vs. Bell has still not been overturned and there are cases of coerced sterilizations in prison and mental health systems. Eugenics is still a major concern with advancements in technology that can screen babies for “undesirable” traits. Is it right for a couple to abort a child who has Down Syndrome? What if we get to the point that prenatal screenings tell us the risk of stunted height or ADHD? Who gets to define what traits are good or bad? America’s history with eugenics is scary but its future is even more precarious. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of Social Darwinism and nonsensical-immigration restrictions. I think Charles Darwin said it best:
“The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.”