How Ethical Systems Change: Eugenics, the Final Solution, Bioethics

How Ethical Systems Change: Eugenics, the Final Solution, Bioethics

How Ethical Systems Change: Eugenics, the Final Solution, Bioethics

How Ethical Systems Change: Eugenics, the Final Solution, Bioethics

Synopsis

Mandatory sterilization laws enacted in dozens of states coast-to-coast and approved by the U.S. Supreme Court formed the initial pillar for what became the Final Solution. Following WWII, there was renewed interest in a more inclusive view of social worth and the autonomy of the individual. Social movements were launched to secure broad-based revisions in civil and human rights. This book is based on a hugely popular undergraduate course taught at the University of Texas, and is ideal for those interested in science-based policy, the social construction of social worth, social problems, and social movements.

Excerpt

Moral systems evolve; on this there is substantial evidence. In this volume, the story begins with a broad-based social movement, led in the United States by a loosely connected network of well-educated, prosperous, elite activists. They were convinced that the ideas of Charles Darwin applied to the strength and survival of society as well as to individual species. They aimed to advance and protect society by limiting, and in the end eliminating, the feeble-minded and others judged to be unfit parasites.

Their efforts came to focus on a model mandatory sterilization law, based on what had come to be known as eugenics. As often happens, broad-based success of the eugenics movement was rooted in small, localized events. Three friends and professional colleagues in Virginia crafted a mandatory sterilization law, based on the model eugenics statute. To ensure the law’s legitimacy and to protect themselves from legal repercussions, they identified a young woman they judged to be feeble-minded. They also determined that this woman’s mother was feeble-minded, and that she was herself the mother of a feeble-minded daughter. In an abbreviated hearing a committee ordered that she be sterilized. In legal proceedings that followed, the colluding friends appealed their own actions to the Supreme Court, where Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for the majority, found that three generations of imbeciles were enough. The woman was sterilized and the floodgates of mandatory sterilization across the nation for persons judged to be an unfit drain on society were opened.

Others were watching. Some six years after the Supreme Court released its decision, the newly installed government of Adolph Hitler adapted the now legitimized U.S. model statute to conditions in Germany. This German eugenics statute was the first step in what turned out to be the Final Solution. Once the soul-searing tragedies of Nazi atrocities came to light, civil and human rights movements were energized to seek a more inclusive sense of social worth. From these movements came increased protections of individual autonomy and refinements in how we thought about life and death decisions, including medical experimentation involving humans, abortion, assisted dying, and capital punishment.

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