Richard Brookhiser: Where Science and Politics Intersect

Roundup: Historians' Take

In June, President George W. Bush vetoed a bill that would have funded research on stem cells harvested from human embryos. Bush said he was not against science; he encouraged research on stem cells drawn from amniotic fluid or created by genetic reprogramming. But he insisted that "our conscience calls us to pursue the possibilities of science in a manner that respects human dignity and upholds our moral values." Bush's vision of a moral dilemma caused by scientists and resolved by politicians seems like a characteristic scenario of the religious right. But these triple knots of science, morality and politics go back a long way.

One of the Founding Fathers was almost killed in a riot over research. Medical students learn anatomy from cadavers, and in the past they got them on the sly, digging up fresh graves. In April 1788 a student at a New York City hospital jokingly told a boy that he was dissecting the boy's mother. When the boy's father found that her coffin had been robbed, the discovery set off two days of uproar. Many of New York's doctors hid in the city jail, where they were defended by local civic leaders, including diplomat John Jay. A mob pelted them with stones, knocking Jay unconscious. Only a volley from the militia, which killed three rioters, dispersed the crowd. The people of New York acknowledged, as a petition against grave robbing put it, that dissection served the "benefit of mankind." But they didn't want their loved ones "mangle[d] ... out of a wanton curiosity ..." After the riot, the state legislature appeased the public by giving doctors the corpses of executed criminals.

Other disputes, though not lethal, changed lives. In 1883 Sir Francis Galton, an English anthropologist, coined the word eugenics, which he later defined as the study of hereditary factors that "improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations." Inspired by eugenics, a number of U.S. states passed laws in the early 20th century allowing those presumed to have bad genes to be sterilized by government order. In 1927 the case of Carrie Buck, a young woman in a Virginia home for the feebleminded, reached the Supreme Court. Writing for an 8-1 decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said society could "prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind ... Three generations of imbeciles are enough." (Buck's mother and daughter allegedly shared her disability.) The Catholic Church condemned sterilization laws in 1930, but the political process backed science, as it was then understood. The mass murder of "unfit" individuals and ethnic groups by the Nazis gave eugenics a black mark that can never be washed off. But the issue marches on; in 2004 a eugenics supporter won the Republican congressional nomination in Tennessee's Eighth District (the GOP disavowed him)....

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