Department of English

Spring 2011 Edition

A Reign of Doctors: Eugenics and the Pursuit of Perfection

Micah Baker
Argumentative 2010 Honorable Mention
Professor: Dr. Bryce Christensen

On May 2, 1927 the United States Supreme Court made a decision concerning a 21-year-old girl. Carrie Buck was to be surgically sterilized for the good of the state. Buck, being an inmate of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble Minded, was not only considered feeble minded but had a mother who was feeble minded as well. To make matters worse, Buck had an illegitimate daughter who was considered to be not quite normal. She was the epitome of what eugenicists had been preaching for years – that not everyone was fit to procreate. According to the science of eugenics, Buck was a danger to the breed of man. The Supreme Court Case of Buck v. Bell would set the stage for eugenics laws to be adapted throughout the country. Eugenicists, in all their misguided attempts for the salvation of man, neglected to consider the moral implications of forced sterilization. While it may seem benevolent to prevent the degradation of the race of man, who is "unfit," who decides that, and how far could it be taken?

In 1883 Sir Francis Galton coined the term "eugenics" which means good genes. The science of eugenics was concerned with the betterment of the human race through good breeding. George Mendel had studied how characteristics in pea plants were passed on from parent to offspring. The idea that certain traits were inherited from parents was what eugenics was all about, though eugenics supporters moved a step beyond simple hair and eye color. Eugenics proposed that health, disease, physical deformities, handicaps, mental ability, and personality were inherited as well. There is some truth in this; however, a person who is, for example, blind from birth will not necessarily have a blind child. Furthermore, eugenicists feared that those with bad genes would breed the human race to its destruction. The only way for mankind to advance was to have the best procreate. In a lot of ways it is like the art of breeding live stock or prized poodles. If you want the blue ribbon you better have the pedigree. This attitude can be seen in a poem by a eugenicist Joseph S. DeJarnette:

Oh, why are you men so foolish
You breeders who breed our men
Let the fools, the weaklings and crazy
Keep breeding and breeding again?
The criminal, deformed, and the misfit,
Dependent, diseased, and the rest
As we breed the human family
The worst is as good as the best
Defectives will breed defectives
And the insane breed insane.
Oh, why do we allow these people
To breed back to the monkey's nest,
To increase our country's burdens
When we should only breed the best?
Sterilize the misfits promptly
All not fit to breed!
Then our race will be strengthened and bettered,
And our men and our women be blest,
Not apish, repulsive and foolish,
For the best will breed the best. (Eugenics: Three Generations)

As a way to combat the degeneration of the human family and to relieve the burden of the state, sterilization laws found their way into existence. Eugenics moved from the realm of theory into the realm of application. Medical intervention of the evolution of the human race was allowed by America's highest court.

The concept of legalized sterilization practices shock us and we look down on them from a perch of moral superiority. But who, at some point in their life, has not said "some people just shouldn't be parents"? Perhaps we would never force sterilization on a person, but the idea of eugenics is very appealing. In a world where children are born addicted to dangerous narcotics and with venereal diseases that will claim their short lives, children who are born with no other purpose than to ensure more money in the welfare check, and children who are born to continue the tradition of ignorance and dependence, who has not thought, if only to themselves, "there should be a test to become a parent"? It must therefore be concluded that the problem with eugenics lies not with eugenics itself, but its application and the degree to which it is carried out.

One of the problems with eugenics is not that certain people should not be allowed to have children, but who those people should be. Who are the unfit? One of the leading eugenists in the United States in the early 1900s was Dr. Harry Hamilton Laughlin, and he addressed this issue in his book. His book Eugenical Sterilization in the United States could almost be called in its day the eugenist bible as it described the unfit, listed all the eugenics laws in the country at the time, and detailed the legal concerns of eugenics. Laughlin's work was drawn up to write many sterilization acts and even provided a bases for eugenics in Nazi Germany. Laughlin lists ten categories of socially inadequate individuals. Included in these categories are the feeble-minded, which is an archaic term that is no longer used today; its original connotation was very broad in its definition as it grouped anyone with some kind of mental deficiency together. Also included are epileptics, criminals, diseased, those with physical deformities, and those dependent on the state including orphans (Laughlin 369). There are several flaws in determining who is "unfit." First, the idea that these traits will be passed on to future generations is not necessarily true; a person that has a physical deformity will not necessarily pass that deformity on to their children. Second, it neglects the role environment plays. Obviously the environment plays more of a factor in creating a criminal than inheriting a criminal nature from one's parents. And third, it is very difficult to draw a line as to where the population stops being unfit. If a person is of low intelligence, eugenics would have them sterilized to prevent low intelligent offspring. But how low should that intelligence be? Could the standard not be increased until only those of the highest IQ are allowed to breed?

On March 20, 1924, The Commonwealth of Virginia passed a eugenics law. This law was to provide for the sexual sterilization of inmates of state institutions that "the welfare of society may be promoted" (Image Archive). Individuals who resided in state institutions fell into the category of those deemed not fit to breed. In order to test the constitutionality of this law, a test case was presented to the courts. Carrie Buck was the unfortunate victim who would be dragged through the legal system to prove that it was "better for all the world" if people like her could have no children (Buck v. Bell). It was important to eugenics that this test case fit two criteria: first feeble-mindedness had to be established and second it had to be proven that this trait had passed itself down from generation to generation. Carrie Buck seemed to fit this perfectly. She was an inmate of The Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-minded. Though she was nineteen at the start of all the court proceedings it was claimed that she had the mentality of a nine year old. Her mother was also a patient at the colony and it seemed as if her intelligence was not the only thing she had passed on to her daughter. It was rumored that Emma Buck, Buck's mother, had rather loose morals, having children out of wedlock from several different men. Carrie was also considered promiscuous, having given birth to an illegitimate child. The child was deemed to show signs of "backwardness" (Image Archive). The case of Buck v. Bell reached the Supreme Court where it was decided that the state had the power to force surgical sterilization upon those citizens whose heredity defects posed a threat to the welfare of the state. Justice Holmes echoed the accepted philosophy of eugenics as he stated:

We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. 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 form continuing their kind…Three generations of imbeciles are enough. (Buck v. Bell)

The United States had just accepted the theory of eugenics in its highest court. While there had been sterilization of state institution patients before this decision, doctors now had the legal backing to perform said euginical surgeries. After Buck v. Bell, many states adapted their own sterilization law and over 60,000 Americans would be stripped of their right to have children. It seemed as if the science of eugenics had triumphed and the population of the United States was saved. However, upon closer examination of Buck v. Bell it can be determined that the eugenics claims were false.

The doctors and lawyers who pushed Buck v. Bell through the court system were supporters of eugenics. They cared little for the truth and only sought to establish a law wherein they might carry out their twisted idea of moral duty. While the claims made in court had some truth, Carrie was more a victim of circumstances and poverty. First, the claim that Buck was illegitimate was somewhat hazy as a marriage certificate for Buck's mother, Emma Buck, showed that she was married to Buck's father. Second was the question of low intelligence; Buck was declared an imbecile having only the intelligence of a child of nine. While this claim is undisputed, it should be pointed out that the method for assessing IQ at the time was the Stanford-Binet test – a test that was relatively new – thus allowing for abuses and inaccurate readings (Gould). Several factors can contribute to low intelligence and it is possible that Buck's mental capacity had more to do with being a member of the poor and uneducated than with heredity. In an article by the leading historian on the Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell, Paul A. Lombardo, he points out that Buck did not fit the description given to her. She displayed no signs of "immorality" or "feeble-mindness," He states "branded by Holmes as a second generation imbecile, Carrie provided no support for his glib epithet throughout her life" (Lombardo).

A third claim that was made in the courts was the illegitimacy of Buck's daughter and signs of feeble-mindedness in the child. There is no doubt that Buck's daughter, Vivian, was illegitimate. However, it was later ascertained that Buck's pregnancy was the result of rape. There have also been some questions to whether Vivian Buck was feeble-minded. The diagnosis was announced when Vivian was an infant because she did not look quite like another infant who was deemed normal. A photograph of Mrs. Alice Dobbs, Buck's foster mother and caregiver for Vivian, shows Dobbs holding Vivian and flashing a coin in front of child (Image Archive). The child's obvious distraction by the camera was taken to mean that she was mentally deficient. Vivian Buck only lived until she was eight years old passing away from a intestinal infection brought on by complication from the measles, so there is no way of knowing if the claim of feeble-mindedness was true. It is pertinent to note that a school record shows her grades as average, even attaining A/B honor roll. The men who supported this case blatantly ignored vital information. They created a case based on rumors so that their theory of heredity might be proven. The first Supreme Court case to attempt to control the destiny of evolution proved not that eugenics was our sacred future but that its application was ethically corrupt.

Another ethical problem with the application of eugenics is the question of "who decides who with unfit?" Attorney I.P. Whitehead stated in his defense of Carrie Buck at the Supreme Court hearing of Buck v. Bell a warning: "A reign of doctors will be inaugurated and in the name of science, new classes will be added, even races may be brought within the scope of such regulation, and the worst forms of tyranny practiced. In the place of the constitutional government of the fathers we shall have set up Plato's Republic" (Buck v. Bell). This chilling statement is almost prophetical. In some ways a reign of doctors did ensue. They were the experts who deemed a person unfit to have children. There were many sterilization operations that were performed that were done without the knowledge of the patient. They would be told they needed an operation for pelvic disease or appendicitis and would find out later in their life that they could not have children. It seems that if eugenics was the righteous salvation of man that it claimed to be that this type of corruption would not have ensued.

The ethical problem of eugenics goes far beyond a few corrupt doctors who play the eugenic crusader. Lombardo points out:

Endorsing such a conclusion opened a wide vista of possibilities. Many other diseases besides epilepsy could provide a motive for surgery in order to purify coming generations. Indeed, in principle, the range of options was hardly limited to disease. The hungry could be sterilized, to prevent future hunger; whole races could be sterilized to do away with their discomforting presence. In fact, a California physician in search of a solution to the "Negro Problem" had proposed such a solution. (Lombardo p. 27)

Indeed the question of "how far should it be carried out?" is the most damning question in the science of eugenics. There seems to be no end to the demons that can be released from this Pandora's Box. It can easily be shifted from breeding out the weak of the population to catering to preferences. Social issues replace fact and those in power manipulate the science for their own pleasure.

Perhaps, the most extreme example of eugenics is Nazi Germany. Germany will forever be branded with the idea of the master race or what German's referred to as the "übermensch." While eugenics existed before and after World War II in Germany, that time period offers the most haunting reminder of how far eugenics can be carried. Under the Lebensborn program, children from conquered countries that exhibited the physical traits of Aryan, such as blond hair and blue eyes, were taken from their parents. Infants were adopted into good German homes. Older child were sent to facilities were they could be reeducated before being placed with a German family. Laws to sterilize the mentally and physically impaired became practice, taking under their scope "the feeble-minded, psychotic, epileptic, blind, deaf, malformed, and chronic alcoholic" (Carlson 326). The Nuremberg Laws prevented the marriage of Germans and Jews and any sexual intercourse between the two groups. Around 250,000 Germans were sterilized under these laws. Eventually eugenics was carried another step forward and those deemed unfit were systematically murdered. Most people are aware of the awful truth of concentration camps, but what is not often remembered is that the killing of the unfit began with German citizens, and was first applied to infants and children. These children suffered from serious mental and physical handicaps and were sent to institutions that were supposed to look after them. There, children were starved to death or given lethal doses of medication; though on the records it was listed that they died of measles or infections. The practice of killing the unfit soon extended to German adults and it was in mental intuitions that the early prototype of the gas chamber was used.

The term eugenics has become synonymous with the acts in Nazi Germany. After WWII, this misguided form of science lost its popularity. Bruinius points out that "...[the] eugenic ideas have long been discredited…shown to be a science infected by social prejudice, condemned as an ideology of racial supremacy" (Bruinius 360). The practice of sterilizing the inmates of state institutions began to wane, coming to an end in the 1970s. The term eugenics may belong to the past, but history has a way of taking old ideas and recycling them, presenting them anew in more appealing packaging and impressive terminology. In his book Better For All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America's Quest for Racial Purity, Bruinius makes a very interesting conclusion about eugenics, stating:

But the fundamental hypothesis may yet be proved correct. … Indeed, the methods of genetic engineering and better breeding are no longer as primitive as surgical sterilization or marriage restrictions, and America's drive for perfection and its ongoing quest for purity, efficiency, and constant self-improvement remain potent cultural impulses. (Bruinius 360-361).

The idea of shaping the evolution of man by controlling the traits passed on from generation to generation seemed like a noble goal. But eugenics proved to be far more potent adversary than was expected. Eugenics failed to recognize the ethical implication of its theory and its practice produced nothing but corruption. The term eugenics has faded into our history and we pride ourselves in being more ethically evolved. But our quest for perfection still rages and in our morally superior future will we be able to recognize the implications of scientific intervention in human evolution. Standing on the precipice of bold new technologies such as gene therapy, genetic engineering, and the idea of designer babies, could we be running headlong into another era of eugenics?

Works Cited
Bruinius, Harry. Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America's Quest for Racial Purity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Print.
Buck v. Bell. 274 U.S. 200. Supreme Court of the United States. 1927. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 10 March 2011.
Carlson, Elof Axel. The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea. Cold Spring Harbor, New York: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2001. Print.
"Eugenics: Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Virginia, Eugenics, and Buck v. Bell." The Claude Moore Health Sciences Library Historical Collections Department. University of Virginia, 2004. Web. 10 March 2011.
Gould, Stephen Jay. "Carrie Buck's Daughter." Natural History 111.6 (2002): 12. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Mar. 2011.
"Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement." Dolan DNA Learning Center. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, n.d. Web. 10 March 2011.
Laughlin, Harry Hamilton. Eugenical Sterilization in the United States. Chicago: Psychopathic Laboratory of the Municipal Court of Chicago, 1922. Print.
Lombardo, Paul A. Three Generations Not Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2008. Print.