Christine Rosen: Eugenics was a bad idea bred of good intentions

Roundup: Talking About History

[Ms. Rosen is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of "Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement" (Oxford, 2004).]

n 1927, physicians at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded in Lynchburg sterilized a young woman named Carrie Buck. Although doctors at state institutions across the country had performed sterilizations before, Carrie's case was unusual. Her sterilization had received the imprimatur of the U.S. Supreme Court. In Buck v. Bell, the court upheld the state of Virginia's right to sterilize, forcibly, so-called feeble-minded individuals. "It is better for all the world," Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote for the majority, "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." Holmes concluded: "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Harry Bruinius takes the title of his book about eugenics, "Better for All the World," from Holmes's now notorious opinion. Eugenics, a term coined by British scientist Francis Galton in 1883, means "good in birth"; its adherents hoped to improve the human race through better breeding. The notion proved particularly appealing to Americans in the early 20th century, as they confronted waves of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and fretted about the "purity" of the native Anglo-Saxon American population.

Many states passed marriage-restriction laws, barring the feeble-minded and epileptic from obtaining marriage licenses, and laws requiring the compulsory sterilization of the feeble-minded residing in state institutions. State fairs even featured "fitter families" contests, where judges assessed each competing family's eugenic merit. In 1924, Congress passed an immigration-restriction law based on eugenic principles, assuming that certain national groups possessed better "germplasm"--or heritable traits--than others. Progressive politicians, intellectuals and religious leaders supported eugenics, seeing in it an enlightened, scientific attempt to cure humanity's ills.

It was an important episode in American history--ending only when a combination of economic depression, the horrors of Nazi genocide and the discoveries of genetic science proved the hollowness and danger of eugenic pseudo-science. But it is not an unknown one. Mr. Bruinius's subtitle--"The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America's Quest for Racial Purity"--is misleading: There is no secret. Decades of work by scholars such as Daniel Kevles, Philip Reilly, Edward Larson and Diana Paul have produced thorough studies on the subject. Nor is their work inaccessible to the general reader. Parts of Mr. Kevles's book first appeared as a series of articles in The New Yorker....

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