On the Subject of the 'Weak-Minded'

Published:July 9, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

A few weeks ago, in a blog post about race, the issue of eugenics came up. I promised some more on that and, well, here it is.

In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Buck v. Bell, affirmed the constitutionality of a 1924 law empowering Virginia to sterilize individuals it deemed genetically “unfit.” By itself, this amazed me (although sometimes I am too easily amazed), but what really got me was the claim, in the introduction to our entry on the case, that “in 1933, Nazi Germany modeled its eugenics laws after Virginia’s.”

Really? Our contributor is Gregory Michael Dorr, author of Segregation’s Science: Eugenics and Society in Virginia (2008), so I didn’t doubt the scholarship. I was just, as I might have mentioned, amazed.

The facts of the case go like this: Carrie Buck was the eighteen-year-old illegitimate daughter of a woman the state deemed a “low grade moron.” Carrie was said to have the mental age of nine, and when she herself gave birth to a daughter, the state pronounced the child to be “weak minded.” (Turns out she wasn’t. Oops.) Virginia thought it saw a genetic pattern and transferred Carrie to the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feeble-Minded in Lynchburg for sterilization.

This is when the lawsuits started, and they included the testimony of an Iowa-born geneticist named Harry H. Laughlin. Without ever having met Carrie Buck or her family, he testified that they were members of the “shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites,” and that the possibility of her “weak-mindedness” being non-hereditary was “exceptionally remote.” (See “oops” above.)

In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court had its say, with Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes complaining, on behalf of the majority, that people like Carrie Buck “[sapped] the strength of the State.”

“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,” he wrote, before famously summing up the frustration of the court: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

The ruling was widely hailed in its day, but Holmes has taken a beating since. He has been called everything from “platitudinous” to a “monster,” with one critic saying (ironically, one hopes) that “it would have been better for the country had he never been born.”

For his part, Harry Laughlin of Oskaloosa, Iowa, was feted at the University of Heidelberg, which in 1936 awarded him an honorary doctorate and a pat on the back. Two years later, the Carnegie Endowment, which had underwritten some of his research, backed out. But the damage had been done. Carrie Buck’s tubes had been snipped, and the Nazis had taken due notice.

Writes Dorr: “Over the next fifty years, doctors at Virginia’s state hospitals sterilized another 8,300 Virginians. At the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, Nazi defendants testified that their eugenics laws were based on Virginia’s precedent. The Nazis sterilized more than 400,000 peopleā€”a prelude to the extermination of approximately 17 million ‘unfit’ people in the Holocaust, six million of whom were ‘inferior’ Jews.”

Discussion

1 Comment on “On the Subject of the 'Weak-Minded'”

  1. Bland Whitley

    This is surely one of the sorriest, most shameful episodes in Virginia’s and America’s history. Virginia was particularly enthusiastic in its application of sterilization, only trailing California, which if I’m not mistaken sterilized over 20,000 people during the same period. I guess this parallels Virginia’s second-place status in the use of capital punishment. Not sure what this says about consistent trends in the state’s justice system, but it sure makes me queasy.

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