Friday, June 16, 2006

Eugenics in America

I just finished reading a book called A Merciful End. It was a very thorough and balanced historical walk-through of the euthanasia/eugenics movement in America, starting about in 1900. I'll definitely need to do some more reading to get a better grip on some of the philosophies that shaped the movement, but I thought it did a great job of chronicling the movement.

I vaguely remember running across a reference to eugenics laws in America sometime in the last year or so, but this fuller accounting just blew me out of the water. Call me naive, but it hadn't ever occured to me that there was a time not so very long ago that a large portion of the American public was in favor of laws mandating involuntary sterilization specifically targeting the mentally disabled and ill.

How can you possibly be so convinced of your own worth to think yourself able to proclaim that "three generations of imbeciles is enough"? Thank you, Oliver Wendell Holmes in the Buck v. Bell case. This declaration in an age where they used such clear-cut definitions of mental illness as "feeble-minded" as a catch-all for anyone just a little bit different. Wikipedia argues that there wasn't anything wrong with Carrie Buck other than that she had been raped by her adopted mother's nephew, that she was put into an institution to save her family's reputation. That may or may not be true, but Holmes declaration is no less obnoxious either way. It makes me sick to think of it.

Check out this article by a U of Virginia prof giving a little more background on the Carrie Buck case.


Ben said...

Yeah, that Holmes comment is one of the most offensive in American jurisprudence. Right up there with Dred Scott.

The Bard said...

I believe that Eugenics is the greatest piece of unaired dirty laundry in American history.Where do I begin? The hidden history of Eugenics in America and your post prompt too many subjects to list, let alone analyze.

A good start is using Buck v. Bell as a snapshot into Holmes's mind. He is easily among the five, if not the three, most influential figures in American legal history. His view of the law dominates modern classrooms and courtrooms. Ideas have consequences. Just what consequences have the ideas of a man capable of writing Buck had on this nation?

We gasp in horror at the Euginics now, but we don't see how it is repeating in our own time. Abortion. Stem Cells. The idea of genetically modified babies. The halls of Ivy League schools filled with adds offering thousands of dollars for the eggs of women who are smart and sexy enough to meet the demands of the genetic engineers.

Yes, most of "respectable" and "scientific" opinion supported Eugenics. That knowledge should make us pause before signing on to "respectable" and "scientific" opinion today.

As an afterthought, let me add that Eugenics ranked next to abortion in Margeret Sangers's (stone) heart, and she wanted to use both to ensure the dominance of a master race.