BreakPoint: Eugenics and Its Victims

The “imbeciles” Holmes referred to were Buck, her mother, and Buck’s infant daughter. But as Adam Cohen tells readers in his recent book, “Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck,” there was nothing wrong with Carrie Buck, her mother, or her daughter. The problem lay in bad ideas that can be summed up in one word: eugenics.

 

2017 is a year of milestone anniversaries for events that shaped our world: the Reformation, the Russian Revolution, and one horrible Supreme Court decision.

As John Stonestreet often says, “ideas have consequences and bad ideas have victims.” One such victim was Carrie Buck. She was the “Buck” in Buck v. Bell, the notorious 1927 Supreme Court decision that upheld Virginia’s statute permitting compulsory sterilization for those deemed to be “feebleminded” and “unfit.”

In his majority decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote that, “It is better for all the world, if . . . society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” He then concluded by saying, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

The “imbeciles” Holmes referred to were Buck, her mother, and Buck’s infant daughter. But as Adam Cohen tells readers in his recent book, “Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck,” there was nothing wrong with Carrie Buck, her mother, or her daughter. The problem lay in bad ideas that can be summed up in one word: eugenics.

Eugenics, a word that combines the Greek words for “well” and “born,” was the creation of Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin. Like many of his Victorian peers, Galton was concerned that the vast majority of children were born to what he regarded as “inferior stock.”

While Galton’s preferred approach was to create a “highly gifted race of men” through “judicious marriages,” his contemporaries were not so gentle. Many of them opposed charity and even vaccines because they “helped people survive who had been targeted by nature for illness and death.”

If that sounds like “survival of the fittest” to you, that’s exactly what it was.

Darwin, as Cohen tells us, “conceded there might well be practical advantages to abandoning ‘the weak and helpless.’” But he added that to do so would create “an overwhelming present evil.”

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