A chapter of history painful to recall
Forced sterilization is today unthinkable. But could it tempt future generations?
America saw itself as a promised land, a place where the hardworking and faithful could come and build a nation of prosperity, free from the imperfections they had left behind. But that ideal also sowed a bad seed that germinated over generations into a shameful chapter in American history.
From the early 20th century through the 1970s, seemingly well-meaning scientists, theologians, and lawmakers worked to create a racially pure society by using hereditary traits as an excuse to prevent those deemed mentally and morally deficient from having children. It was a new science called "eugenics," or the "self direction of human evolution," according to a 1931 leaflet by the United States Eugenic Records Office. (One cannot escape the irony of the root of the word "eugenics," the Greek "eugenes," meaning "well-born" or "good genes.")
More than 30 US states passed laws that resulted in the forced sterilizations of at least 65,000 Americans, and there were untold others in states without laws. The movement became a model for similar laws in Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Sweden, and perhaps most troublingly, in Germany. Hitler enacted a comprehensive sterilization law in 1933, sterilizing more than 150,000 Germans within two years.
Perhaps the heaviest burden of the story of eugenics and forced sterilization is this American connection to the master-race theories that culminated in the Holocaust, writes Harry Bruinius, author of Better for all the World. His new book chronicles America's history in the eugenics movement, using trial transcripts, personal letters and diaries, and other original documents.
Bruinius, who studied theology at Yale and journalism at Columbia, takes us into the minds of the thought leaders of the time, showing us how otherwise well-respected people could countenance the now-unthinkable act of forced sterilization. Eugenics was supported by a Who's Who of society, among them Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, Winston Churchill, and George Bernard Shaw.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., associate justice of the US Supreme Court, wrote the majority opinion in the landmark case Buck v. Bell that made eugenic sterilization a constitutionally sanctioned method to fight poverty and crime.
In the opinion, which still stands today, Holmes wrote: "...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."
Buck v. Bell sits at the heart of the American eugenics movement and Bruinius's book. It was a test case meant to challenge the constitutionality of Virginia's forced sterilization act before the Supreme Court. It focused on the first person sterilized under that act: Carrie Buck, who was suing the physician who sterilized her, Dr. John H. Bell.
Carrie was a 21-year-old unwed mother who, with her own mother, Emma, was a resident of the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. Carrie's illegitimate infant daughter, Vivian, was already claimed to be showing signs of feeblemindedness.
The Colony's board earlier had approved the request for the operation by Dr. Albert Priddy, the first superintendent of the Colony. But those involved in the decision were aiming for far broader approval to continue eugenic practices. They orchestrated a lawsuit on behalf of Carrie against themselves, first at the state level against Dr. Priddy, and then before the Supreme Court with Priddy's successor, Dr. Bell.
Not much of a defense was put up on Carrie's behalf. Even her own lawyer supported eugenics. Holmes's decision failed to take into account school records showing that Carrie's daughter Vivian, the "third-generation imbecile" referenced in his opinion, had made the honor roll.
Little has been done to make amends for the harm caused to Americans whose only crime may have been their poverty or lack of education. Some states have since issued apologies to the victims, but those who tried to sue for damages have had little success.
Bruinius, who is a contributor to The Christian Science Monitor and a journalism professor at Hunter College, presents a compelling and readable narrative of the people and motivations behind the eugenics movement. And while the practice was not as secret as the book's subtitle would suggest, many Americans today are unaware of it, which is a key part of the book's value.
Bruinius uses extensive endnotes citing sources for readers who want to learn more. The illustrations, from eugenics pamphlets to evidence used to show defective family trees, are chilling and enliven the text.
At the end of the book Bruinius draws parallels to today's advances in genetics, and poses questions about whether the notion of "better breeding" could resurface in modern bioengineering technologies. The basic premise of eugenics, he writes, is still valid. This section of the book leaves the reader hungry for more specifics.
But Bruinius aptly points out that genetic engineering is something to be watched. Disturbingly, he writes, "It is not an irresponsible prophecy to say that ideas of better breeding could again lead to the horrors witnessed in the twentieth century."
• Lori Valigra is a freelance writer in Cambridge, Mass.