"There is a great deal about Buck v. Bell that is troubling.
The Supreme Court got the most basic facts about Carrie Buck and her
family wrong, and relying on those errors it allowed a terrible injury
to be done to her. The court exhibited a shockingly narrow conception
of individual rights. It gave its unqualified endorsement to a cruel
procedure. And when a young woman came seeking to be protected from
an immense wrong, the court showered her with insults and allowed her
to be harmed.
In the end, however, what is most disturbing is the worldview
the court revealed. Buck v. Bell presented the court with a stark
choice between Hammurabi's ideal and its precise opposite. The
ancient principle of justice teaches that the purpose of law is to
ensure that the strong do not harm the weak. The state of Virginia,
and the eugenicists who were in league with it, insisted that the
strong must hurt the weak--and that it was the law's duty to help."
During my childhood we were far enough removed from the Nazi
Holocaust to grasp its immensity and cruelty. "How could they?"
people would ask. In the next breath they would reassure themselves,
"It could never happen here (the United States)."
Don't bet the farm on that.
Anyone denying America's potential for genocide should look
beyond the Thanksgiving festivities to how we really treated our
nation's first inhabitants. It would have been bad enough if we'd
just taken their lands, made their way of life impossible, and broken
nearly every agreement we signed. Some of our ancestors decided they
did not deserve to live, giving them blankets impregnated with
smallpox to which they had no immunity.
Much later in the early 20th century we carried out a course of
action that inspired and elated none other than Adolph Hitler. Adam
Cohen's Im•be•ciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the
Sterilization of Carrie Buck, rich in historical background, takes the
reader back to that not so great chapter in American History.
The 1920's were a turbulant time in many ways.
Industrialzation, urbanization, and big waves of immigration were
making a lot of people think society was going to Hell in the
proverbial handbasket. This was particularly true of the old guard
elite, such as the self named Boston Brahmins, who believed that
because of superior stock they and their families deserved to run
society and enjoy the best it had to offer.
In 1864 Herbert Spencer described survival of the fittest as a
process found universally in the world of nature. The fittest members
of species lived and begat; the less fit members didn't. In 1869
Francis Galton, half cousin to Charles Darwin, came up with a word,
eugenics, for the process of improving stock. People with superior
traits should be encouraged to be fruitful and multiply; possessors of
undesirable traits should be prevented from doing so. In the minds of
eugenicists philanthropy and even vaccinations should not be given as
they would aid in the survival of people of poor stock, people who
would otherwise be wiped out (hopefully before passing on substandard
traits) by natural selection.
Galton's ideas were conceived in England and embraced with great
enthusiasm in America. They added the aura of scientific legitacy to
a long held suspicion: in some fundamental way all people are not
created equal. Family and community studies were put together to
prove that traits such as poverty and the tendency to commit crime
were inherited. The role of environment was downplayed or outright
ignored. Not surprisingly, biases such as racism played a big role in
judgements of human worth. The turn of the century embrace of Gregor
Mendel's laws of hereditory became the cherry to top off the
eugenicist ice cream sundae.
Americans were told they were in the middle of a crisis. With
the 20th century version of deplorables reproducing at a faster rate
than the Anglo Nordic superiors, the good stock that had made the
nation great was being watered down. There were two ways to rectify
the problem. Immigrants from less desirable nationalities should not
be allowed in. The 15 million Americans with inferior genes should
somehow be preventing from reproducing.
"There were, of course, fundamental problems with the
eugenicists' science. They were making the mistake of assuming that
'like produces like'--that brilliant parents produce brilliant
children, and criminals produce criminals. Intelligence, indolence,
dependency, and other human qualities are not, however, 'unit
characters'--traits passed on in a single gene from parent to child.
And as Mendel's work suggested, in reproduction genes combine and are
expressed in complex ways, particularly for the sort of human
qualities eugenics focuses on. The eugenecists' plan of ending
feeblemindedness simply by preventing the feebleminded from
reproducing had no basis in genetics."
There was also the devil in the details. How exactly could a
nation keep millions of its members from reproducing? Eugenecists
rightly suspected that society would not go for killing the
deplorables off. Imprisoning ten percent of the population for their
reproductive lives would be quite costly. Sterilization seemed to be
the most effective way to go.
Much to the eugenecists' surprise and dismay, state
sterilization laws were often struck down over constitutional
arguments. The state of Virginia decided to create a law that would
withstand challenges all the way up to and including the United States
Supreme Court. Im•be•ciles is a lucid and thought provoking
narrative of this chapter in America's history, its historical
background, and its consequences, most alarmingly in Nazi Germany.
Despite the extensive scholarship and eminent readibility of the
book, I would most strongly recommend it for its sad relevence to the
present. In my opinion the deck is still very much stacked against
the most vulnerable. Schools are funded by property taxes. Under old
Billy Boy Clinton welfare was transformed from a safety net into a
time limited aid in a world with far too few jobs with decent wages.
Governor LePage refuses to expand Medicaid to cover the "undeserving"
poor. In fact the number of Americans who die prematurely for lack of
medical care dwarfs the number of 9/11 fatalities every year.
Children in places like Flint, Michigan drink contaminated water. And
we're still guarding the borders against immigrants fleeing dire and
Need I say more?
Ironically one of the most enthusiastic actors in this bizarre
drama would have been a prime candidate for the procedure. He had
epilepsy. I do too. Of my children, my oldest daughter is working on
her PhD in physics; my younger daughter graduated UMaine summa cum
laude and right away got a job in her field; and my son is studying
engineering and working towards his advanced EMT. I wonder what
superior stock would have produced.
On a personal note, the Hunger Banquet to raise money to help refugees
was awesome. Even though I'd been tabling for it for weeks it didn't
sink in until the day before that semi formal meant me too. I put
together a lovely outfit: silver empire dress overlaid with black net
with silver sparkle designs, sparkly tights, grey ballet flats with
silver sparkle bows, necklace and earrings. Everyone looked
gorgeous. We had inspiring speakers including refugees from Africa.
The food and fellowship was great. Dave gave me some raffle tickets
he'd bought and I won a restaurant gift card. It was a truly
A great big shout out goes out to all who participated.
Sent from my iPod