American Eugenics And The Case of Buck v. Bell - Blog! - Two-Fisted History


American Eugenics
The Case of Buck v. Bell

DisclaimerThe work below is wholly the work of the late Dr. Warren Carroll.  It's presented with permission from Dr. Andrew Beer at Christendom Press.  Thanks again, Christendom!I'm greatly indebted to both.  Eugenics, whether in the form of forced sterilization, abortion, or the insidious promotion of contraceptive and abortifaicent agents is a crime against humanity, and I'm grateful for the work of Dr. Carroll in this research, as well as the permission of Dr. Beer to reproduce his work. It allows us to acknowledge some of the ways in which the Eugenic Movement has affected our modern society.

Margaret Sanger was far from the only eugenicist in the United States in the first third of twentieth century.  Many factors came together to create this climate.  Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinism applied Charles Darwin's survival of the fittest notions to human society., saying that 'the fittest' would rise to top and govern the rest.  Gregor Mendel's experiments with plants were becoming well known; some saw them equally applicable to human beings. Sure, not much difference between a human and a bean. Those in positions of influence were concerned with the number of 'undesirable' immigrants coming into the United States from Southern and eastern Europe, including among them many Catholics and Jews.  There were also concerns about Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and Chinese immigrants.

But there were more reasons than these rather commonplace kinds of prejudice.  There was a growing belief that those with undesirable traits should not be allowed to procreate.  Men who claimed scientific expertise in this subject were able to gain financing from sources of great wealth and began to spread their pernicious idea.

In 1902, Andrew Carnegie'Car-na-gee,' not 'Car-nay-gee.' endowed the Carnegie Institute.  It had many goals but one was scientific research.  One of the men who obtained a position with the Institute was Charles Davenport, a committed eugenicist.  In 1904, he became head of the newly founded Biological Experiment Station at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island.

Davenport 'believed that inferiority was an inescapable dominant Mendelian trait.'  He wanted to establish the Eugenics Records Office to document and record those who possessed inferior traits so that they could be sterilized.  He specifically listed, in order in which they should be sterilized, feebleminded, paupers, drunks, criminals, epileptics, insane, 'constitutionally weak,' 'those predisposed to specific diseases,' the deformed and those who were deaf, blind, and mute.  He obtained generous contributing for his Eugenics Records Office from Mary Harriman, widow of railroad millionaire F.H. Harriman.

Davenport began assembling his records 'to identify the most defective and undesirable Americans,' which he estimated at one-tenth of the population.  His workers surveyed inmates in jails and people in institutions, combed public records, and tracked down epileptics and albinos. Imagine what they'd have thought of YouTube commenters! But this project was not just one man's  mad idea.  Some of the most influential people in America were on his side.  Woodrow Wilson, future president of the United States, signed into law a compulsory sterilization bill while governor of New Jersey.  Former president Theodore Roosevelt said to Davenport in a letter, 'I agree with you. . . that society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind.' Both men are lionized in US History!  Davenport persuaded Secretary of State P.C. Knox to sign invitations to the first international eugenics conference in 1912.  The prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association carried glowing reports of the work of eugenicists.  The John D. Rockefeller Foundation made sizable contributions.  Eugenics began appearing in the university curricula in such places as Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago, and the University of California-Berkely.

But what really made eugenics respectable was the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell.  The case referred to a young Virginia woman named Carrie Buck.  Carrie's mother, Emma, after giving birth to Carrie, was widowed.  Emma began to live a promiscuous life, and Carrie was taken from her mother and placed with the Dobbs family.  In 1920, Emma was taken into custody, determined to be febbleminded, and committed to the Colony for Epileptics and Febbleminded, where she remained for the rest of her life. I bet Nellie Bly would've freaked out.  Carrie did well in school, but when she was in sixth grade she was removed from school so that she could do more work for the Dobbs family.  In 1923, Carrie, then 17, became pregnant.  She said she had been raped.  At the time, she said the father was a 'boyfriend,' but later she accused a Dobbs nephew.  The Dobbs family wanted her out of the house.  They claimed that Carrie was febbleminded, and she too was committed to the Colony. An awful convenient way to get rid of her! Carrie gave birth to a daughter, Vivian, who was taken away from her and given to the Dobbs family for foster care.

Virginia had just passed a compulsory sterilization law, but there was some reluctance to enforce it until it was tested in the courts.  So the eugenicists in Virginia set up the test case of Buck v. Bell (Bell was assistant to the superintendent of the Colony).  Little Vivian was also deemed febbleminded, even though she was only a few months old.

The case was decided in May 1927.  On a court in which the chief justice was former president William Howard Taft, the decision upheld the sterilization law with only one dissenting vote (Pierce Butler). Proof that SCOTUS doesn't always make the right call.  The majority opinion was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of the most revered judges ever to sit on the court.  But he was a man who believed that there were no moral absolutes, that the law should uphold whatever the dominant group in society wanted. Srsly?He once said that there was no difference between a man, a baboon, and a grain of sand.  The eugenicists could have no better judge to write their decision.  The key passage from his decision follows:


It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.  The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.
          Three generations of imbeciles are enough.


Carrie Buck was sterilized on October 19, 1927.  Little Vivian, that third generation, made the honor roll at her school before she died of an infectious disease when she was eight years old.  Eventually 29 states would pass compulsory sterilization laws.  As late as 1950, Margaret Sanger said in a speech that she was very concerned about the increasing population of 'Africa, Asia, and South America,' criticized government aid to the poor, and said that the government should be financing sterilizations.  Eugenics sterilizations were still being performed in the 1960s; Edwin Black estimates that 70,000 sterilizations were performed in the first seven decades of the twentieth century in the United States.

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Tags : History Eugenics USHistory WoodrowWilson TheodoreRoosevelt SCOTUS

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