Before the time she was eight, Vivian Dobbs had both made the honor roll and been labeled an “imbecile” by the Supreme Court. The story of how this could happen is one of the darkest, most frequently overlooked chapters in American history—one that isn’t completely closed.
Vivian’s mother was Carrie Buck, and her story is the subject of a new book, Better for All the World, by Harry Bruinius. In it, Bruinius tells “the secret history of forced sterilization and America’s quest for racial purity.”
In 1920, when Carrie was thirteen, her mother was sent to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feeble-Minded. There, Carrie’s mother was sterilized. Four years later, Carrie herself became pregnant, most likely after her foster parents’ nephew forced himself upon her. To avoid scandal, they had her committed to the Colony as well, where she gave birth to Vivian.
The Colony’s administrator decided to have Carrie, like her mother, sterilized under a Virginia law that authorized the sterilization of the “feeble-minded.” This decision was appealed to the Supreme Court. And in the 1927 Buck v. Bell decision, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that “it is better for all the world” if “society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” He concluded his opinion with the words, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Holmes’s third generation of “imbeciles” was Vivian, who was no such thing—neither, for that matter, was Carrie. As Bruinius documents, determinations of “feeblemindedness” and “imbecility” were based on little more than pseudo-science and prejudice.
Yet, as the result of laws like Virginia’s, perhaps hundreds of thousands were forcibly sterilized.
As Holmes’s use of the term unfit suggests, these laws were an attempt to direct human evolution. This attempt to give evolution a hand was based, fittingly enough, on the theories of Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton.
Galton, like many of his fellow Victorian elites, was troubled by demographic trends in nineteenth-century Britain. In his view, the “wrong kind” of people were having the most children. If these trends continued, the consequences for what he and others called the “British race” would be ruinous.
His response was what he called eugenics, coming from the Greek word for “well born.” He, like his cousin, reasoned that man, in most important respects, was just another animal. And just as human beings direct the breeding of livestock, they can direct the breeding of their “race,” as well.
In Galton’s case, that direction took the form of encouraging the “fittest” to marry and have children. In the United States, eugenics took the form of preventing those deemed “unfit”—like Vivian’s mother and grandmother—from reproducing. But in their quest for “racial purity,” they went beyond forced sterilization and ended up with blood on their hands. That story, including their influence on Hitler’s Third Reich, is the subject of tomorrow’s “BreakPoint.” It’s a story whose final chapter is far from written, so please read “BreakPoint” tomorrow.
|For Further Reading and Information |
Today’s BreakPoint offer: Human Dignity in the Biotech Century: A Christian Vision for Public Policy by Charles Colson and Nigel Cameron, eds.
Harry Bruinius, Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity (Knopf, 2006). Read an excerpt.
Sally Satel, “A Better Breed of American,” New York Times, 26 February 2006. (Reprinted on Dr. Satel’s website.)
Christine Rosen, “Humanizing Eugenics,” Wall Street Journal, 28 February 2006.
Elbert Ventura, “When the U.S. Tried to ‘Purify’ the People,” San Francisco Chronicle, 5 March 2006.
Farhad Manjoo, “Progressive Genocide,” Salon, 4 March 2006.
Lori Valigra, “A Chapter of History Painful to Recall,” Christian Science Monitor, 7 March 2006.
Ralph Brave, “Halting Reproduction,” City Paper (Baltimore, Md.), 22 March 2006.
Eric Arnesen, “A Better Society through Breeding?” Chicago Tribune, 26 March 2006.
LaNitra Walker, “Sexual Murder,” American Prospect, 2 March 2006.
BreakPoint Commentary No. 050407, “A Matter of Life and Death: From Darwin to Hitler.”
Nigel M. de S. Cameron, “Unfinished Business: How the United States Manufactured Eugenics for the Nazis,” BreakPoint Online, 17 October 2003.