Every now and then you stumble across one of those odd historical facts that is so outrageous and beyond belief that it forces you to hold your breath in sheer incomprehension.
Such an event happened to me in April this year when interviewing a group of scientists for a Western Word Radio program focused on the debate over intelligent design. I discovered then, courtesy of Dr. John West, that over a 50 year period, beginning in 1905, over 60,000 people, deemed unfit for reproduction, had been forcefully sterilized in the United States.
Although the State of Indiana was the first U.S. state to enact sterilization legislation, the hub of activity soon moved to the west coast, where California’s first sterilization law was enacted in 1909- exactly one hundred years ago this week. Like many Midwestern transplants, this practice found less restrictions in the Golden State, and by 1921 more eugenic sterilizations had been performed in California than in the rest of the United States combined. Unlike other states, the practice suffered no legal challenge or hindrance until the Supreme Court validated forced sterilization practices in the landmark case of Buck vs Bell.
The movement behind the forced sterilization laws was known as Eugenics. Eugenics stressed the application of science to human heredity and breeding in order to improve the human species both mentally and physically. Some Progressives referred to eugenics as “the science and the art of being well born.” Human sterilization was carried out for many reasons. It might be implemented as punishment, perhaps in the form of castration for repeat sex offenders. It might be used for social reasons, to restrain individuals from having children because they are completely unable to care for them, either physically, emotionally or financially. But when the state sterilizes an individual because he is seen to be genetically defective and therefore likely to pass his defects on to offspring, this is eugenic sterilization. And this was the type of sterilization that many California policymakers sought to carry out.
The United States was the first country to concertedly undertake compulsory sterilization programs for the purposes of eugenics but the movement thereafter took off like wild fire in the rest of the world. In Japan, in the first part of the Showa era, Japanese governments promoted increasing the number of healthy Japanese, while simultaneously decreasing the number of people suffering mental retardation, disability, genetic disease and other conditions that led to them being viewed as “inferior” contributions to the Japanese gene pool. Their Leprosy Prevention laws of 1907, 1931 and 1953, permitted the segregation of patients in sanitariums where forced abortions and sterilization were common and authorized punishment of patients for “disturbing the peace.” Under the colonial Korean Leprosy Prevention Ordinance, Korean patients were also subjected to hard labor.
Eugenics programs, including forced sterilization, existed in most Northern European countries, as well as other more or less Protestant countries. Some programs, such as Canada’s and Sweden’s, lasted well into the 1970s. Other countries that had notably active sterilization programs include Australia, Norway, Finland, Estonia and Switzerland.
Organizations in support of eugenics were established around the world. For instance, one year after Buck vs Bell, The Human Betterment Foundation came into existence in Pasadena, California with the aim “of fostering and aiding constructive and educational forces for the protection and betterment of the human family in body, mind, character, and citizenship.” It primarily served to compile and distribute information about compulsory sterilization legislation in the United States, for the purposes of eugenics.
An understanding of the widespread support forced strerilization enjoyed in California can be gleaned with the reading of a list of the group’s inaugural Board of Trustees. They included Henry M. Robinson (a Los Angeles banker), George Dock (a Pasadena physician), David Starr Jordan (chancellor of Stanford University), Charles Goethe (a Sacramento philanthropist), Justin Miller (dean of the college of law at the University of Southern California), Otis Castle (a Los Angeles attorney), Joe G. Crick (a Pasadena horticulturist), and biologist/eugenicist Paul Popenoe. Later members included Lewis Terman (a Stanford psychologist best known for creating the Stanford-Binet test of IQ), William B. Munro (a Harvard professor of political science), and UC. Berkeley professors Herbert M. Evans (anatomy) and Samuel J. Holmes (zoology).
In other words, some of the top members of the political, business and scientific elites in the United States were among eugenics’ most enthusiastic benefactors and moral supporters.
In England, about the same time, a widespread national eugenics movement was being established. In 1908 the Eugenics Education Society was founded with the hearty endorsement of some of the leading intellectuals of the day including H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Beatrice Web, among other leading politicians, scientists and society patrons.
The most infamous sterilization program of of the 20th century took place, of course, under the Third Reich. One of the first acts of Adolf Hitler after achieving control over the German state was to pass the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring (Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses) in July,1933. The bill was signed into law by Hitler himself, and over 200 eugenic courts were created specifically as a result. Under the German law, all doctors in the Reich were required to report patients of theirs who were mentally retarded, mentally ill (including schizophrenia and manic depression), epileptic, blind, deaf, or physically deformed, and a steep monetary penalty was imposed for any patients who were not properly reported.
The individual’s case was then presented to a court of Nazi officials and public health officers who would review a patient’s medical records, take testimony from friends and colleagues, and eventually decide whether or not to order a sterilization operation performed on the individual – using force if necessary. By the end of World War II, over 400,000 individuals were sterilized under the German law, most within its first four years of enactment.
When the issue of compulsory sterilization was brought up at the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War, many Nazi leders defended their actions by indicating that it was the United States itself from whom they had taken their inspiration.
They were right on target.
The question then is why? Why did forced sterilization gain such traction in the United States? What could have compelled Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the country’s leading jurist and otherwise a redoubtable liberal champion of free speech and human rights, to declare in the majority opinion in Buck vs Bell that: “ It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manfiestly unfit from continuing their kind. Three generations of imbeciles is enough!”?
It has often been argued that you can’t judge one generation’s moral viewpoint from the vantage of the future. But in this case, that argument appears tendentious. There were numerous legal challenges to the eugenics laws of state governments – by both individuals and by organizations and there was a fairly vigorous editorial campaign launched against the practice. In addition, the argument that these were not regarded as moral issues at all by early U.S. 20th Century citizens, but practical utilitarian measures, designed to save society from the added expense of caring for those who could not care for themselves, also falls flat. Multiple asssociations and welfare organizations had begun to sprout by the beginning of the century which were equipped to give assistance to the mentally and physically disabled, making the United States the most prodigious locus for charitable voluteerism in the world.
The answer to this imponderable question is more likely to be found in the “progressive” thinking which had gripped the intellectual, political and social elites of the West since the mid-19th Century. The advent of Darwinist thought and the coining of the expression “survival of the fittest” ( which is accredited to the English philospher Herbert Spencer and not Darwin himself, who never mentions it in any of his works) led many to invest in the idea of racial purity in order to protect the future of their progeny in an increasingly competitve world. In the 1880s and 90s, as England, France, Russia, Germany and the Johnny-come-lately United States tussled with oneanother in carving spheres of influence into the world map, national greatness seemed to hinge on the ability of a civilization to produce a race of men worthy of empire and capable of holding on to it.
In the mad rush to secure their places on the totem pole of national grandeur, it was then commonly accepted, throughout all of these societies, that only the fit would survive. This meant that the “unfit” – blind, deaf, mute, spastic, leprous, incurably diseased and even chronically poor individuals, had to be quietly and efficiently neutered so that they would not contaminate the remainder of the national stock.
Leading progressive intellectuals of the early 20th Century had, in other words, interpreted Darwinian theory as a writ to “interfere” with human natural selection. The crass inhumanity of it all was besides the point, since such beings were in fact only half or quarter human anyway.
Looking back at this dark history we all must feel that twinge of deep embarassment when we realize that our vaunted civilization is not quite as lily-white as we once might have considered it. But that kind of regret is wasted if we learn nothing from this stain on our national reputation. Totalitarianism in Europe did not begin with brownshirts breaking bones on the streets of Rome, but with ideas that would brook no opposition. Today, there are many other commonly accepted ideas – from anthropogenic global warming to the social utility of gay marriage to scientific certainties about the origins of life and the universe – that turn viciously against those who either question or deny them. The casualties in these culture wars might not be the incomparable unfortunates of the 20th Century who had suffered physical deformation. Nonetheless they are still innocents who suffer sterilization of another sort – the stigma of isolation and the pain of non-inclusion in the national debate.
The inevitable truth is that totalitarian thinking, sporting ideologies that can turn against peaceable citizens – can sprout in any country, even one with as proud a record in protecting human liberty as the United States.
Social Darwinism, the ideology which gave life to the eugenics movement, is still very much with us today. It often reappears in the abortion debates, in the writings of such elite and highly respected philosophers as Harvard’s Peter Singer and among animal rights advocates who elevate animal life above that of human. In this hallmark month, we should remember its repercussions and vow that never again should it be allowed to overrride mens’ better moral instincts in the name of a nebulous and ultimately soul destroying sense of progress.