'Judgment at Nuremberg' and the Sterilization Debate Today

The closest my generation is ever going to get to seeing a Spencer Tracy portrayal is through the character Carl Fredricksen from the popular Pixar movie “Up.” That is a shame. He was an incredibly talented actor, who starred in a host of powerful films. One such film is “Judgment at Nuremberg.”

One major issue grappled with in the film is the use of eugenics and miscarriages of justice in Nazi courts during WWII. Some might see the film as being about the dark legacy of Nazi Germany. In fact, the film shows that the dark legacy of eugenics stretches further back and is not limited to just across the Atlantic, but a little closer to home.

About a little over a half hour into the film, the U.S.’s dirty little secret is revealed. The scene begins with the trial of Ernst Janning, a former Nazi judge who is being accused of miscarriage of justice. His attorney, Hans Rolfe, is cross-examining a former colleague and teacher of Janning, named Dr. Vick. During the cross-examination, Rolfe brings up the Nazi eugenics program and asks Dr. Vick a seemingly easy, innocuous question: Was the Nazi program the first of its kind? Dr. Vick attempts to dodge the question by stating he is no expert on this matter. Rolfe presses forward stating that other countries had argued for and implemented such forced sexual sterilization programs. Picking up a casebook, he reads from the infamous Buck v. Bell, where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was permissible for forced sterilizations to be implemented. Rolfe’s reading is met with uncomfortable silence. The prosecution has lost some of its moral high ground.

The United States introduced eugenics as a means of marginalizing and then eliminating what they perceived to be sub-par persons. This melded with the philosophy of Social Darwinism, which viewed certain races as naturally superior. The program also included those with physical and mental disabilities and criminals who saw their potential offspring as burdensome. Racial discrimination is unpopular nowadays, but there remains a strain of thought that justifies forced sterilization of criminals. But certainly forced sterilization could not be happening in present-day America? Unfortunately, it is.

In California, some prisons have enacted sterilizations with dubious consent. Nearly 150 female inmates underwent sterilization. Some gave prior approval, but there were many who were coerced to give their consent. In any case, it still violated state law because any requests to perform a tubal ligation had to be brought before a state medical board for prior approval. This was to ensure that the procedure had been the woman’s decision and was not done under coercion. The fact that the doctors in charge of the proceedings thought it prudent to skirt the state board’s oversight, a board designed to ensure proper consent was present, smacks of foul play. At least when eugenics was implemented back in the 1920s they were to call it as it was and it was done under the public purview, not behind clandestine prison walls.

More disturbing than secrecy of the operations is the logic used to justify the forced sterilization. Dr. James Heinrich, the head OB-GYN at one of the prison facilities who conducted the forced sterilization, when asked why he enacted forced sterilization did not back away from his decision. Heinrich stated that the money used on the sterilization was a drop in the bucket compared to the money that would have been used to provide for these women’s future unwanted children. Interestingly enough, as “Judgment at Nuremberg” points out, similar utilitarian calculations were used to justify the early 20th century eugenics programs. Citing Buck v. Bell, Rolfe states,

“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.”

Like Dr. Heinrich’s, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s own justifications for eugenics nearly ninety years ago centered on the cost to societies. Those past justifications inspired and were further implemented by, albeit in a much, much more gruesome fashion, Nazi Germany. Dr. Heinrich probably does not think of his actions as precipitating something like genocide, but the same pattern of thinking can be taken to an extreme with horrendous consequences.

The U.S. public should be aware of their country’s own history with eugenics before they exclaim, “No, eugenics will never come here.” It already has been here, and there is nothing saying it cannot come back in an even more systemic fashion than the cases in California. As Ernst Janning, the judge being tried in “Judgment at Nuremberg,” claims at the end when justifying his sentencing of innocent men, “I never thought it would come to that [the Holocaust].” Judge Hayward responds, “It came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.” By the same token, American society would be wise to stamp out any hints of eugenics before it becomes a greater, more gruesome problem.


The Collapse of Morality
Judgement at Nuremberg is indeed a very thought provoking well acted film. The testimony of Ernt Yanning, while fictional, poses a danger that every society faces at some point or other. That danger is the compromises that seem necessary to preserve order and prevent upheavel. Germans lived in a state of near anarchy in the 1920's and early 1930's. By giving power to a
Adolf Hitler order was restored but the ultimate cost was infinately greater. We dare not forget that power is a drug and in the hands of the wrong people a lethal one.

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