Magazine article The Human Life Review

Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck

Magazine article The Human Life Review

Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck

Article excerpt


Progressives aren't shy about taking credit for good things when they happen. Modem muckrakers eagerly chalk up any and all positive social developments-from food safety to government transparency to women's suffrage-as historic wins for progressivism, the big-hearted strain of social reform running through the American body politic since the time of Teddy Roosevelt. But today's progressives are far less eager to lay claim to-or even to acknowledge-the warped and inhumane intellectual currents that shaped the progressive movement in its earliest days.

Modem progressives may take aim at economic inequality, but as George Mason law professor David E. Bernstein and Princeton economist Thomas C. Leonard argued in a 2009 research paper, many of the original progressives were "partisans of human inequality."1 Modem progressives fancy themselves champions of the disabled, the different, and the marginalized, but Margaret Sanger, the progressive birth control activist and Planned Parenthood founder, claimed to "personally believe in the sterilization of the feeble-minded" and declared that parents should not be allowed to reproduce when their children are "physically or mentally defective."2 The progressive family tree has rotten roots.

In the early twentieth century, progressives were enamored of the possibilities presented by the marriage of efficient scientific management techniques and evolutionary biology. They believed that selective breeding could weed out undesirable traits from the gene pool. They sought to solve a host of society's ills by limiting the ability of the physically disabled, the criminally predisposed, and the so-called "feeble minded" to reproduce. These beliefs coalesced into the odious social philosophy known as eugenics. Over the course of a century, the term has become radioactive; it calls to mind the gruesome experiments of the Nazi devil-doctor Josef Mengele. In the early days of the progressive movement, however, society's ability to improve itself through eugenic sterilization was considered more than a fashionable belief-it was viewed as a moral obligation.

Four years after he left the White House, Teddy Roosevelt wrote to Charles Davenport-perhaps the era's most famous eugenicist-expressing his strong agreement with Davenport's claim that "society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind."3 In 1910, Davenport had founded the Eugenics Records Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. Underwritten by John D. Rockefeller, Mrs. E.W. Harriman, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the ERO was part think tank, part lobbying shop, and part research laboratory. Under the leadership of Harry Laughlin-who held a Ph.D. in biology from Princeton-the ERO spearheaded the American eugenic movement and taught hundreds of willing trainees how to interview immigrant families and identify the "feebleminded" among them who potentially posed a threat to pure WASP culture in America. These ERO guys were racist to the core.

"Eugenics was a movement of people who believed themselves to be inherently superior," writes journalist Adam Cohen in Imbeciles, a new history of progressivism's darkest moment. Today we think of the Progressive Era as the age of the common-sense policy tinkerer and the crusading journalist pushing society toward ever-greater levels of tolerance and fairness. Many of the early progressives, however, were perfectly at ease with naked human cruelty. In a preview of modem culture's obsession with disability-related selective abortion, Yale professor of political economy Irving Fisher in 1912 lauded eugenics as a philosophy that "aims to prevent (by isolation in public institutions and in some cases by surgical operations) the possibility of the propagation of feeble-minded and certain other classes of defectives and degenerates. …

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