This year is the 90th anniversary of Buck v. Bell, considered by many to be one of the U.S. Supreme Court’s worst rulings ever. It legalized the forced sterilization of people of “inferior stock.” Very controversial in its day, it now rests in relative obscurity, even though at the Nuremberg trials it was cited as justification for Nazi experiments.
People first hearing of it tend to be horrified this could have happened in America. Although understandable, this reaction is naive. The way I see it, the United States has not moved far enough from the spirit in which that case was decided. We may, in fact, be moving backward.
The 1920s were a turbulent time in many ways. Some saw in industrialization, urbanization and massive waves of immigration a possible overthrow of the social and political order. This was particularly disturbing to the old-guard elite, such as the self-described Boston Brahmins. Many less wealthy and influential people saw new trends in music, dress and courting patterns as indications that this once great nation was headed in the wrong direction. All that was needed for the step from disquietude to misguided action was a scapegoat.
Poorly understood science provided the scapegoat: the poor and “defective.” Faith in family stock ran deep. People then believed that exceptionally good blood lines produced more valuable people. Conversely, traits such as feeblemindedness, sexual promiscuity, poverty and epilepsy were seen as evidence of degenerate germ plasm. The rediscovery and misinterpretation of Mendel’s laws of heredity painted a patina of scientific legitimacy over this bias. The populace was warned that since the deplorables bred much more prolifically than their betters, America was becoming swamped in a tide of mediocrity, if not worse.
Many people wondered how to make America great again. Restricting immigration from nations with collective poor stock could stem the inflow of degenerates. But what to do with those already here was a thornier issue. Eugenicists, suspecting that widespread euthanasia or castration of undesirables would be a hard sell, tried to legislate forced sterilization at the state level. Not all laws were passed, but many that did were later overturned.
Tired of seeing these laws overturned, eugenicists decided that a win at the Supreme Court would make mandates for forced sterilization of “inferiors” permanent. They considered the case of Carrie Buck, a Virginia teen mother of an “illegitimate” child, to be a judicial slam dunk, claiming that Buck, her mother, and her daughter were all feeble-minded — proof positive of heredity at work. Eight justices voted in their favor, with only one dissenting. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
So what does this have to do with us today? We’re still hurting groups whom we marginalize and demonize.
How often do you use the bathroom at school or work? Transgender students in many places can’t freely enjoy this very basic right. When Gavin Grimm was prohibited by the local school board from using the boys’ rooms in his Virginia high school, he said, “All I want to do is be a normal child and use the bathroom in peace.”
Because public restrooms are places where people feel uniquely vulnerable, efforts are made to protect “legitimate” users from potential sexual predators. The myth of black men’s lust for white women kept bathrooms racially segregated until 1964. Many people today, especially those who question the legitimacy of transgender identity, fear that anything short of segregation by birth gender in school restrooms will enable male students to molest female peers. Although it is not happening, proponents of bathroom bigotry claim that opportunistic students pose as transgender to violate peers — our daughters — where they’re most vulnerable.
Actually, transgender students are more likely to be bullied by peers. The relentless hate bombardment enabled by the internet drives too many children and teens to see suicide as the only out. Being treated as dangerously different encourages the bullying.
Immigrants and refugees from dangerously destabilized countries are at increased risk of deportation with Donald Trump in the White House. Muslims are painted as terrorists who “hate our way of life.” Gov. Paul LePage calls asylum seekers Maine’s “biggest” problem, suggesting they bring with them “hepatitis C, tuberculosis, AIDS, HIV, and ‘the ziki fly.’”
Because of unfounded fears, we send innocent people to almost certain death.
Have we really come all that far in the right direction since Buck v. Bell? Please ponder this question.
Jules (Julia) Hathaway of Veazie is a writer, community activist and proud mother of three. Because of petit mal epilepsy, she would have been sterilized in the 1920s.