Wednesday, March 30, 2016

A fascinating new book about Supreme Court and Eugenics in the US

by Salman Hameed

When talking about the famous 1925 Scopes (Monkey) Trial, the focus is usually on evolution and religion. But one of the important backdrops of it was the existence of social Darwinism and eugenics in the biology textbooks of the time. Not just that, but eugenics was also legal in many states in the US. There is a fascinating new book out that talks about the a 1927 US Supreme Court case that - in an 8-1 decision - further strengthened eugenics in the US and led to at least 60,000 forced sterilizations. Furthermore, it served as a blueprint for the Nazi eugenics program.

Here is a Fresh Air interview with the author of Im-be-ciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. Here is an excerpt from the interview:
Author Adam Cohen tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that Buck v. Bell was considered a victory for America's eugenics movement, an early 20th century school of thought that emphasized biological determinism and actively sought to "breed out" traits that were considered undesirable. 
"There were all kinds of categories of people who were deemed to be unfit [to procreate]," Cohen says. "The eugenicists looked at evolution and survival of the fittest,
as Darwin was describing it, and they believed 'We can help nature along, if we just plan who reproduces and who doesn't reproduce.' " 
All told, as many as 70,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized during the 20th century. The victims of state-mandated sterilization included people like Buck who had been labeled "mentally deficient," as well as those who who were deaf, blind and diseased. Minorities, poor people and "promiscuous" women were often targeted. 
Cohen's new book about the Buck case, Imbeciles, takes its name from the terms eugenicists used to categorize the "feebleminded." In it, he revisits the Buck v. Bell ruling and explores the connection between the American eugenics movement and the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. 
Cohen notes that the instinct to "demonize" people who are different is still prevalent in the U.S. today, particularly in the debate over immigration. 
"I think these instincts to say that we need to stop these other people from 'polluting us,' from changing the nature of our country, they're very real," Cohen warns. "The idea that those who don't remember the past are condemned to repeat it — it's very troubling that we don't remember this past."
Here is the bit about Carrie Buck - the person at the center of the Supreme Court case:
This is this poor young woman, really nothing wrong with her physically or mentally, a victim of a terrible sexual assault, and there's a little hearing, she's declared feebleminded and she gets sent off to the colony for epileptics and feebleminded. (Photograph: Carrie Buck (left) and her monther (right) in 1924). 
When she's at the colony, the guy who is running the colony, Dr. Albert Priddy, is on the prowl. He's looking for someone to put at the center of this test case that they want to
bring, so he's looking for someone to sterilize, and he sees Carrie Buck when she comes in, he does the examination himself, and there are a lot of things about her that excite him. She is deemed to be feebleminded, she has a mother who is feebleminded, so that's good because you can show some genetics, and then they're hoping that [her] baby could be determined to be feebleminded too, then you could really show a genetic pattern of feeblemindedness. The fact that she had been pregnant out of wedlock was another strike against her. So he fixes on her and thinks Carrie Buck is going to be the perfect potential plaintiff. ... 
He chooses her, and then under the Virginia law, they have to have a sterilization hearing at the colony, which they do and they give her a lawyer (who is really not a lawyer for her; it's really someone who had been the chairman of the board of the colony and was sympathetic to the colony's side) and they have a bit of a sham hearing where she is determined to be a suitable person for sterilization; they vote to sterilize her, and that is the order that then gets challenged by Carrie as the plaintiff first in the Virginia court system and then in the Supreme Court.
And what is further heart wrenching is that the process for women was not a minor surgery and they were not always told ahead of time that they were being sterilized:
For men it was something like a vasectomy. For women it was a salpingectomy, where they cauterized the path that the egg takes toward fertilization. It was, in the case of women, not minor surgery and when you read about what happened, it's many, many days of recovery and it had certain dangers attached to it, and a lot of the science was still quite new. ... 
When you add onto all that, the fact that in many, many cases the women involved were not told what was being done to them, they might be told that they were having an appendectomy, they weren't being told that the government has decided that you are unfit to reproduce and we're then going to have surgery on you, so that just compounds the horror of the situation.
You can listen to the full interview here.

Here is a review of the book in Nature (you will need subscription to the read the full article):
By 1928, a total of 375 US universities and colleges were teaching eugenics, and 70% of high-school biology textbooks endorsed the pseudoscience in some form. Eugenics was also endorsed by presidents including Theodore Roosevelt, funded by philanthropic organizations including the Carnegie Institution, and touted by award-winning scientists such as biologist Edwin Grant Conklin and the Nobel laureate Hermann Muller, discoverer of X-ray mutagenesis, as well as prominent inventors such as Alexander Graham Bell. Eugenics came to be seen as the solution to everything from hearing loss to criminality. In Britain, advocates tended to focus on segregation and voluntary sterilization. Major British eugenicists included left-leaning scientists J. B. S. Haldane and Havelock Ellis, and supporters included the economist John Maynard Keynes, social reformers Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and writer H. G. Wells. 
In 1927, a month after her sterilization, Buck was released from the asylum as hired help, on a kind of parole. Later, she married. Her sister Doris was also sterilized; interviews suggest that she thought the operation an appendectomy. Imbeciles traces their later life in detail, noting one of the most poignant aspects of the case — Buck's letters to the asylum about her relatives and probationary status. These, Cohen notes, revealed Buck to be intelligent and diligent in trying to contact and protect her mother and child, who lived with a foster family: a testament to one of the most spectacular miscarriages of justice in US history. To this day, the Supreme Court has never officially overruled Buck v. Bell.
Read the full review here.

Also, see these amazing photographs of American Eugenics Society promoting "fitter families". 

1 comment:

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