In 380BC, Plato described a system of state-controlled human breeding in his Socratic dialogue “The Republic”, intended to create a “guardian class” over his ideal society.
In the 19th century, Francis Galton studied the theories of his cousin Charles Darwin on the evolution of species, applying them to a system of selective breeding intended to bring better human beings into the world. He called it his theory of “Eugenics”.
Eugenics gained worldwide respectability in the early 20th century, when countries from Brazil to Japan adopted policies regarding the involuntary sterilization of certain mental patients.
“Better Babies” competitions sprang up at state fairs across the United States, where babies were measured, weighed, and “judged”, like livestock. By the 20s, these events evolved into “Fitter Family” competitions.
One of the leaders of the eugenics movement was the pacifist and Stanford University professor, David Starr Jordan. After writing several books on the subject, Jordan became a founding member of the Eugenics Committee of the American Breeders Association. The upper class of America was being eroded by the lower class, he said. Careful, selective breeding would be required to preserve the nation’s “upper crust”.
Margaret Higgins Sanger believed that birth control should be compulsory for “unfit” women who “recklessly perpetuated their damaged genetic stock by irresponsibly breeding more children in an already overpopulated world.”
An early advocate for birth control, Sanger has her supporters to this day, including former Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. “I admire Margaret Sanger enormously”, Clinton said. “Her courage, her tenacity, her vision…” Time Magazine points out that “Sanger opened the first birth-control clinic in the United States”, describing her as “An advocate for women’s reproductive rights who was also a vocal eugenics enthusiast…”
Detractors have described Sanger as a “thoroughgoing racist”, citing her own words in What Every Girl Should Know, published in 1910: “In all fish and reptiles where there is no great brain development, there is also no conscious sexual control. The lower down in the scale of human development we go the less sexual control we find. It is said that the aboriginal Australian, the lowest known species of the human family, just a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development, has so little sexual control that police authority alone prevents him from obtaining sexual satisfaction on the streets”.
Admire or detest the woman as you prefer, Sanger’s work established organizations that later evolved into the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Around the world, eugenics policies took the form of involuntarily terminated pregnancies, compulsory sterilization, euthanasia, and even mass extermination.
Madison Grant, the New York lawyer known for his work in developing the discipline of wildlife management, was a leader in the eugenics movement, once receiving an approving fan letter from none other than Adolf Hitler.
Public policy and academic types conducted three international eugenics conferences to advance their ideas. The first such conference was held in Great Britain in 1912, followed by two more in 1921 and again in 1932, both in New York City. Colleges and universities offered eugenics as an academic discipline, delving into the ethical and public policy considerations of eliminating the “degenerate” and “unfit”.
In Pennsylvania, 270 involuntary sterilizations were performed without benefit of law, between 1892 and 1931. On March 21, 1905, the Pennsylvania legislature passed “An Act for the Prevention of Idiocy”, requiring that every institution in the state entrusted with the care of “ idiots and imbecile children”, be staffed by at least one skilled surgeon, whose duty it was to perform surgical sterilization. The bill was vetoed by then-Governor Samuel Pennypacker, only to return in 1911, 1913, 1915, 1917, 1919, and in 1921.
By the height of the movement, some 30 states had passed eugenics legislation, legalizing the involuntary sterilization of individuals considered “unfit” for reproduction. All told, some 60,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized in state-sanctioned procedures.
California forced Charlie Follett to undergo a vasectomy in 1945 at the age of 15, when Follett found himself abandoned by alcoholic parents. He was only one of some 20,000 Californians forced to undergo such a procedure.
Vermont passed a sterilization law in 1931, aimed at what then-University of Vermont zoology professor Henry Perkins called the “rural degeneracy problem.” An untold number of “defectives” were forced to undergo involuntary sterilization, including Abenakis and French-Canadian immigrants.
Indiana passed the first eugenic sterilization law in 1907, but it was legally flawed. To remedy the situation, the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) of the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Station for Experimental Evolution crafted a eugenics statute, adopted by the Commonwealth of Virginia as a state statute in 1924.
That September, Superintendent of the ‘Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded’ Dr. Albert Sidney Priddy, filed a petition to sterilize Carrie Buck, an 18-year-old patient at his institution whom he claimed to be “incorrigible”. A “genetic threat to society”. Buck’s 52 year old mother had a record of prostitution and immorality, Priddy claimed, and the child to whom Buck gave birth in the institution further proved the point.
Buck’s guardian brought her case to court, arguing that the law violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. After losing in district court, the case was appealed to the Amherst County Circuit Court, the Virginia Supreme Court, and finally the United States Supreme Court.
Dr. Priddy died along the way, Dr. John Hendren Bell taking his place. SCOTUS decided the “Buck vs Bell” case on May 2, 1927, ruling in an 8–1 decision that Buck, her mother, and daughter Vivian, were all “feeble-minded” and “promiscuous.”
In the majority ruling, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., 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…. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
It was later revealed that Carrie Buck had been raped by a member of the Dobbs family, the foster family who had taken her in and later had her committed. To save their family “honor”. No matter. Buck was compelled to undergo tubal ligation, and later paroled to become a domestic worker with a family in Bland, Virginia. Buck’s daughter Vivian, was adopted by this same Dobbs family.
In a later examination of Vivian, ERO field worker Dr. Arthur Estabrook pronounced her “feeble minded” saying that she “showed backwardness”, supporting the “three generations” theory expressed in the SCOTUS opinion.
The child died from complications of measles in 1932, after only two years in school. Dr. Estabrook failed to explain in his report, how she seemed to do well for those two years, nor did he explain how she came to be listed on her school’s honor roll, in April 1931.
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