"Three Generations of Imbeciles Are Enough"

01/25/2012 11:50 am ET | Updated Mar 26, 2012

This insidious quotation was the tag line in Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's infamous opinion in the 1927 case of Buck v. Bell, which legitimized the eugenics movement in the United States, involving forced sterilizations on a massive scale of persons deemed "socially inadequate" to bear children. Unfit persons included the poor, illiterate, blind, deaf, deformed, diseased, orphans, "ne'er-do-wells," homeless, tramps, and paupers. This evil experiment in social engineering was intended to purify the white race; the program served as a model for the Nazi racial laws and Hitler's "final solution" for exterminating the Jews. Holmes rejected Carrie Buck's plea to prevent her court-ordered salpingectomy to make her sterile. The eugenicist for the state of Virginia claimed she was "feeble-minded," a controversial and indeed fraudulent label used to justify the procedure. In fact, as disclosed many years later, Carrie Buck was a poor 18-year-old woman of normal intelligence who was ordered sterilized to hide the shame of her pregnancy after being raped by a relative of her foster family. Holmes, who served as an infantryman in the Civil War, with arrogance for the virtuous and well-to-do, and contempt for the poor and amoral, makes the following quintessential defense of eugenics:

We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. 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 manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

This dark chapter in American history -- which most people would prefer to forget -- continues to haunt public discourse. Several states which participated in the forced sterilizations have apologized and offered to compensate the thousands of victims who are still alive and whose grim accounts of being forcibly sterilized are finally being revealed. A few weeks ago a task force in North Carolina -- one of the most aggressive states that sterilized 7,600 people -- recommended paying victims $50,000. The task force heard from survivors and witnesses about the sterilization of young girls considered unintelligent and "oversexed," poor persons who came from homes with deficient housekeeping standards, teenagers with behavioral problems at school, women who became pregnant at a young age often from rape, and children whose parents had low I.Q.s The program disproportionately targeted minorities, poor, uneducated, and mentally handicapped. Girls and women made nearly 90 percent of those sterilized.

How did this crazy experiment in human genetic engineering in the U.S. become so influential and with such devastating consequences? Wealthy businessmen, powerful politicians, and a phony intelligentsia, steeped in the fashionable Darwinian theory of the "survival of the fittest," drove the movement, whose goal was to purify the white race by preventing the propagation of those persons considered biologically unfit to bear children and encouraging procreation only by those considered worthy. More than 31 states launched government-run eugenics programs, and over 65,000 persons were sterilized. A "Model Sterilization Act" was proposed by officials at the central eugenics agency - with the Orwellian title "Eugenics Record Office" -- which became the model for states as well as for the racial laws in Nazi Germany. The eugenics movement lists as one of its greatest triumphs the severe restriction on immigration, with national quotas that discriminated against those considered mentally inadequate.

Reflecting on this grotesque phenomenon in U.S. history raises troubling associations with current laws and policies. For example, is there any connection between the eugenics movement and the anti-choice movement? One of the principle elements of each of these movements is that a woman is deemed incompetent to make decisions about whether to bear children and indeed devoid of any legal right to control her own fertility. Forcing a woman to give birth -- which the anti-choice movement effectively requires -- really is not that different conceptually from preventing her from giving birth. Both movements place a woman's reproductive decisions under the control of either the government or other institutions, typically religious ones. (Consider the current attempt by some religious leaders to force an exemption in the Obama administration's contraception policy). Moreover, in both movements there is little interest in protecting the well-being of children by ensuring adequate prenatal and post-natal medical care of infants, and supporting other child-nurturing policies. One wonders whether the alleged desire for healthy children proclaimed by both movements is simply a pretext for controlling female sexuality.

Another parallel to the eugenics movement is the furious attack on national immigration policy, and the attempt to restrict asylum opportunities for non-citizens, and increase the numbers of aliens being deported. One of the hallmarks of the eugenics movement was the contempt shown by the well-bred and comfortable white populace against poor, uneducated, illiterate, and persons of questionable morals. The vicious anti-immigrant fervor today reflects a similar contempt (and fear) of the "other" - which includes the alien, the stranger, the person of color - and this paranoid strain has been a fixture in American society from the beginning.

Even after Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court has ruled that procreation is a fundamental constitutional right that can be overridden only by the most compelling reason. But Buck v. Bell has never been overruled, and the legacy of that case, albeit a footnote in constitutional law, is a brooding presence that continues to unsettle our national conscience. States may continue to express regret for what they did in the name of fraudulent science and social hypocrisy, but the stain really doesn't go away.