Breeding a Better America

Breeding a Better America

Forced sterilization of imbeciles by U.S. states was once affirmed by the Supreme Court, but the science behind the practice has been shown to be flawed.

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2m 27sec


“Race Cleansing in America” by Peter
Quinn, in
American Heritage "text14"> (Feb.–Mar. 2003), 28 W. 23rd St., New York, N.Y.

“Three generations of imbeciles are
enough,” declared Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for the 8 to
1 majority of the Supreme Court in 1927. The ruling affirmed the right of
the state of Virginia to sterilize a young woman named Carrie Buck against
her will. The daughter of a “feeble-minded” woman, Buck had
been institutionalized three years before, at age 17. She was already the
mother of a child born out of wedlock.

The Court’s decision was a landmark victory for
the eugenics movement in America, notes historical novelist Quinn, who is
working on a book about the movement. Within five years, 28 states had
compulsory sterilization laws. The annual average number of forced
sterilizations increased tenfold, to almost 2,300, and by the 1970s, when
the practice had largely ceased, more than 60,000 Americans had been

Eugenics (both the theory and the word) originated
with British biologist Francis Galton (1822–1911), who saw a clear
link between achievement and heredity, and thought enlightened governments
should encourage “the more suitable races or strains of blood” to propagate, lest they be overwhelmed by their fast-multiplying inferiors.

Emerging in America in the late 19th century, the
eugenics movement gathered strength as immigrants from southern and eastern
Europe flooded into the country. In 1903, with the strong backing of
President Theodore Roosevelt, Congress barred the entry of anyone with a
history of epilepsy or insanity. Four years later, the unwanted list was
expanded to include “imbeciles,” the
“feeble-minded,” and those with tuberculosis. Meanwhile,
doctors took up the cause of compulsory sterilization, and Indiana became
the first state to authorize its use on the “unimprovable” in
state-run institutions.

In 1910, Charles Davenport, a Harvard-trained
biologist, founded the Eugenics Record Office (ERO), in Cold Spring Harbor,
New York, to press for eugenics legislation. The lobby received generous
support from wealthy individuals such as Mary Williamson Harri­man, the
widow of railroad magnate E. H. Harriman, and John D. Rockefeller, and from
foundations such as the Carnegie Institute and the Rock­efeller
Foundation. An ERO mod­el statute provided much of the basis for the
1924 Virginia law under which Carrie Buck was sterilized.

Before long, however, scientific and medical advances
began to cast serious doubt on the theory of eugenics, says Quinn.
“Hered­itary feeble-mindedness was shown in many instances to be
the incidental result of birth trauma, inadequate nutrition, untreated
learning disabilities, infant neglect, or abuse, often enough the
consequences of poverty rather than the cause.” The ERO closed its
doors in 1939.

Four decades later, the director of the hospital in
which Carrie Buck had been sterilized sought her out. “It was
transparently clear,” Quinn writes, “that neither Buck nor her
sister [who had also been sterilized] was feeble-minded or imbecilic.
Further investigation showed that the baby Carrie Buck had given birth
to—Justice Holmes’s third-generation imbecile—had been a
child of normal intelligence.”