Friday, June 20, 2014

It's only bad when Nazis do it....*

In 1926, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, this happened:

Carrie Buck was a feeble minded woman who was committed to a state mental institution. Her condition had been present in her family for the last three generations. A Virginia law allowed for the sexual sterilization of inmates of institutions to promote the "health of the patient and the welfare of society." Before the procedure could be performed, however, a hearing was required to determine whether or not the operation was a wise thing to do.

Which presented this legal question to the Supreme Court in 1927:

Did the Virginia statute which authorized sterilization deny Buck the right to due process of the law and the equal protection of the laws as protected by the Fourteenth Amendment?

The Court heard arguments on April 22, 1927, and dispatched the matter by May 2, 1927:

The Court found that the statute did not violate the Constitution. Justice Holmes made clear that Buck's challenge was not upon the medical procedure involved but on the process of the substantive law. Since sterilization could not occur until a proper hearing had occurred (at which the patient and a guardian could be present) and after the Circuit Court of the County and the Supreme Court of Appeals had reviewed the case, if so requested by the patient. Only after "months of observation" could the operation take place. That was enough to satisfy the Court that there was no Constitutional violation. Citing the best interests of the state, Justice Holmes affirmed the value of a law like Virginia's in order to prevent the nation from "being swamped with incompetence . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
And the issue is back: in Virginia, the assistant commonwealth attorney offered a plea bargain to Jesse Lee Herald which included a vasectomy "he had seven or eight children, all by different women, and we felt it might be in the commonwealth's interest for that to be part of the plea agreement."  Herald had previous convictions for minor crimes, none of which were related to fathering too many children; and his present arrest connected to children only because he flipped a car with a three year old in it.  Not a nice thing to do, but not exactly grounds for sterilization.  Still, his lawyer agreed to it, and so it shall be done.

But should it?

If you read the comments at the link and at Slate, the overwhelming answer seems to be:  "Yes."    Apparently allegedly fathering "too many" children renders Mr. Herald no better than a horse or a cow, and he must be castrated for the good of the herd (vasectomy is just a kinder, gentler form of castration; the goal is the same), or rather for the good of the "owners."  There's something a little frightening about that, about using public health as a justification for castrating an individual who might or might not be an inconvenience to the state, as Carrie Buck was.

And I think it shows the truth of Lt. Gen. Russell Honore's statement about the cleanup in Katrina, and the national reaction to it:  we are afraid of the poor.  It should be true that ideas don't matter; things don't matter; people matter.

Unless there is an idea that causes us to reduce people to objects; then ideas matter more than people. And it's especially easy to sink poor people beneath the level of our ideas; which shouldn't matter more than people, but they do; because they are ours.

And people are scary; especially poor people.

*No, not Godwin's law; as the Slate article points out, eugenics was widely supported in America until the Nazis gave it a bad name.  Even now, we don't have a definitive Constitutional argument against eugenics (as we do for slavery, say, or even racism, to some degree); it's mostly the aversion of the Nazis that makes us turn away.  Until it doesn't.....


  1. The defendants at the Nuremberg trials cited Holmes in their defense. Considering one of the judges was Holmes's friend and private secretary, Francis Biddle, you have to wonder what he thought of it. Not to mention that Nazis cited American eugenics laws in their eugenics promotions, the headline on one poster said "We Do Not Stand Alone" in their forced eugenics.

    And it gets worse than that, the book on eugenics that Hitler was provided while in prison, as he was writing his Mein Kampf, contained information from American eugenicists, such as Paul Popenoe, in California. At about the same time Leonard Darwin was complaining, to the American Charles Davenport that he doubted the Germans would adopt eugenics because so many of them were "so conservative". But don't get me going on that topic or I might have to write another series.

  2. Of course, anti-choicers also love to point out Margaret Sanger's support of eugenics as proof that Planned Parenthood and reproductive freedom are all about racism and stuff.

  3. This isn't rocket science: a consistent ethic of CHOICE. It's wrong to be forced to have children, it's wrong to be forced (or coerced) NOT to have children. Fie on "Right to Life" AND eugenicists!