Butterfly Cauldron

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Who's afraid of the big, bad state?

The state's right to sterilize
The Providence Journal

Few remember the name of Carrie Buck, a citizen of Virginia who died in anonymity in 1983. Yet her name and the legally sanctioned travails she endured for the "welfare of society" are milestones in America's struggle to define the margins of individual freedom and the safeguards of civil liberties.

Heritability of such qualities as intelligence and feeble-mindedness is a relatively recent concept. In the 19th Century, social scientists in Britain and Germany were influenced by the discovery that specific human physical attributes -- such as the color of eyes and hair -- were genetically transmitted to succeeding generations in a predictable manner. The work of Gregor Mendel on the breeding of flowering plants had clearly demonstrated the inheritance of such physical qualities as color and shape of blossom; he postulated that botanical seeds carried packages of discrete genetic information (later called genes), which determined the physical traits of the offspring.

Britain's Francis Galton believed that still other human attributes might be passed on to the next generation, and that among them was that ill-defined something called intelligence. Simultaneously, social scientists were trying to devise ways to quantify intelligence.

Galton and others elaborated a new discipline, which they called eugenics, defined as the science of improving the quality of the human species by selective breeding. Crucial to this concept was the fervently held belief that humanity would be immensely enriched if society could prevent the mentally defective from breeding. Galton and the other eugenicists envisioned a future blissfully free of the ignorant, wastrels, vandals, prostitutes, and people with inherited criminal tendencies.

This purification was to be accomplished merely through elimination of "mental defectives" from the genetic pool. Galton's eugenics influenced the thinking of many, including those who determined the ethnic restrictions incorporated in U.S. immigration laws.

In 1886, Switzerland was the first country to translate eugenic theory into legislation when it sanctioned surgical castration for those with mental disabilities and "sexual neuroses." In 1907 Indiana was the first American state to authorize sterilization. And in 1924 Virginia adopted a law, in the stated interest of society, allowing compulsory sterilization of those deemed mentally retarded.

On Sept. 24, 1924, the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble Minded filed a petition to surgically sterilize one Carrie Buck, an 18-year-old patient at the institution. Carrie's mother, age 52, was said to have a mental age of 8, although this was never independently verified. She had borne three children, each with a different father; further, there was an allegation that she had once engaged in prostitution.

As a child, Carrie had been adopted; she attended school until the sixth grade. At age 18 she became pregnant, and, because of "incorrigible behavior and promiscuity," was transferred to state custody. (Her pregnancy was later found to have been caused by rape by a member of the adoptive family.)

Carrie Buck turned to the courts to avoid surgical sterilization, and the case (Buck v. Bell) eventually wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court in the spring of 1927. In an eight-to-one decision (only Justice Pierce Butler dissented), the court upheld the judgment of the lower courts that the State of Virginia had the right to perform the sterilization.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., served to nationally legitimize eugenic sterilization: "(T)he health of the patient and the welfare of society may be promoted in certain cases by the sterilization of mental defectives ... without serious pain or substantial danger to life." The opinion declared that "Carrie Buck is the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring."

Does enforced sterilization deprive an individual of her civil liberties? Holmes wrote that if society can ask individuals to sacrifice their lives for the protection of their country, and if America can demand compulsory vaccination, then surely it can sanction compulsory sterilization for the general welfare. "It is better for all the world," wrote Holmes, "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 concluded, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
In its sweeping pronouncements, the Supreme Court made two assumptions that later proved erroneous.
The first was that the diagnosis of "feeble-mindedness" could be accepted when based solely on the subjective judgment of a single observer. In subsequent years, Carrie Buck, her mother, and her daughter demonstrated neither incapacity for self-care nor promiscuity.

The second erroneous assumption was that feeble-mindedness or criminality are discrete attributes passed on, genetically, from generation to generation.

Between 1933 and 1937, the compulsory-sterilization statutes in 28 states resulted in the involuntary sterilization of 25,403 Americans. The justifications included such diagnoses as epilepsy, manic-depressive psychosis, and schizophrenia.
Meanwhile, in Germany -- where the procedure was carried out for political as well as medical reasons -- the number of people sterilized exceeded 600,000.

Virginia repealed its sterilization law in 1974.

There has never been any scientific proof that such traits as promiscuity, ignorance, indolence, or criminality are inheritable. Ignorance, particularly, is an easily nurtured trait, needing no assistance from genes.

I was born in 1974. Thirty-two years ago, there was a law on the books allowing the state to prevent people from having children. I don't have stats on how often that law was used, at that late date, but I'm fairly certain it was. It seems to me, and it has for a very long time, that if the state has the right to force you to have a baby (by outlawing abortion) it also has the right to force you to not have a baby (by forced sterlization.)

Both decisions operate on the same principal -- the state knows what's best for it's citizens, regardless of those citizens personal interests. It also seems to me that if the state can force a woman to have a baby she conceives on her own, via voluntary sex, it can also force a woman to conceive a child she otherwise wouldn't. I mean by that, what's to stop the state from deciding there aren't enough white babies in state X and running some kind of lottery to determine who will be forced to have children to up the white baby population? What's to stop the state from deciding that state Y has too many brown people and initiating a campaign of forced sterlization?

If the right to decide when to have a child is not absolute, then why can't the state step in and make those decisions for you? What's to stop the state from looking at me and going, "You know, you're very smart. And you're white. So those things are in your favor. But, you have an extensive history of depression, auto-immune disease and fatness. Family history of cancer, heart disease, stroke. And then there's that great-grandfather who went to jail for murder. No, I'm sorry, but you cannot procreate. To make sure you can't procreate, we're going to force surgery on you to remove you're ovaries. Or maybe we'll just tie your tubes. Then again, you're 32, maybe a hysteractomy is in order."

Or, what's to stop the state from deciding they want more smart, white, fat people and compelling me to have a child I don't want? What's to stop them from deciding that man X would be a good genetic match for me and forcing us to breed?

If my right to bodily soverignty is not absolute when it comes to pregnancy, then what's in the way of stopping the state from compelling me to do whatever it wants me to do? It certainly wouldn't be unprecedented in history. (And yes, I realize eugenics laws are no longer on the books. But, frankly, it's not such a huge step from criminalizing abortion to forcing sterlization or childbirth. Both rest on the same basic right to bodily autonomy. Unless, of course, the fact that men could be forced or prevented from parenthood tips the scales toward sanity?)

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posted by Zan at 11:50 AM


Reading that just made me feel nauseous. The "keep your laws off my body" bumper sticker comes to mind. UGH!

1:43 AM  

Doesn't it just? The thing that gets me is...in less than 35 years things have gone from abortion is a given, the government cannot force sterlization to being on the edge of reversing all that. That just creeps me out. I mean...when did women stop being people?

7:01 AM  

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