We need to name some modern practices as eugenics – and don’t

How this failure to name eugenics – and then condemn it as such – has resulted in a growing acceptance of renewed efforts to “better humankind”

An article on Germany’s renewed efforts to document Nazi-era medical experimentation and murders of disabled people came out recently without ever mentioning the word eugenics. Published on January 5, 2017, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science Mag titled the piece “Germany to probe Nazi-era medical science.” The phrase “medical science” is too kind for murders rooted in a eugenics movement – and eugenics is not “medical science.”

I am pleased that Germany is doing a probe and that this is getting coverage in a science magazine with such detail, as eugenicists claimed scientific and medical evidence as their rationale. I am less so that they didn’t name eugenics. The article’s word choice got me thinking about eugenics in the past and modern eugenics. If you don’t name eugenics as such, it’s that much harder to recognize today.

Many people I know agree eugenics was a movement that happened in history, and name it in articles and other writing. But I have not seen as many people discussing eugenics practices happening in recent years and today. As a society – with some exceptions – we don’t call many actions eugenics or discuss the perils of eugenics practices occurring in them.

  • We don’t call it eugenics when prenatal testing in order to avoid having disabled children – particularly those with Down Syndrome – happens.
  • We don’t call it eugenics when disabled people receive the recommendation that they should not have a child because they have a disability.
  • We fail to discuss eugenics beliefs behind the removal of children from disabled parents on the basis that they are “unfit to parent” due to disability.
  • We don’t call it eugenics when many states still have sterilization laws on the books and when Buck v. Bell has never been overturned in its entirety.
  • We don’t call it eugenics when disabled people are still sterilized “for their own protection” in many countries, such as Australia. 
  • We don’t call it eugenics when discussions of “designer babies” that are “perfect” – meaning, to many, without any form of disability – occur.
  • We fail to discuss eugenics when talking about human genomics and gene-editing programs, such as CRISPR.

Yet these are rooted in eugenics, with the belief that disability is unacceptable and bad.

Joan Hume, a woman with a disability, wrote in 1995 about the “new eugenics,” prenatal testing, and having disabled children, “The message about disability is loud and clear: the prospect of having a disabled child is not acceptable for many prospective parents…. With the emphasis on “perfect babies” the message of the new technologies is that disabilities can and must be weeded out by eliminating foetuses with certain defective traits. This is clearly a modern version of the earlier eugenics perception that disability is inherently bad.”

And eugenics is, indeed, inextricably linked with the concept that disability is bad – regardless of whether the practices target non-disabled people or not. Eugenics tells people that disability and failure to conform to mainstream society’s expectations and rules are bad. Eugenics is ultimately rooted in  intertwining sets of bigotry: racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and more forms of oppression, using disability, “abnormality,” and “defects” to explain practices such as involuntary sterilization of any marginalized person.

The popular American eugenics movement of the Progressive Era past had eugenicists positing that intelligence and moral “defects” in the “feebleminded” people were passed down like Mendel’s peas generation by generation, using the growing field of genetics, the myth of the “feebleminded menace,”  and “fitter families” contests to make it plausible and acceptable to society. They twisted scientific concepts and used new scientific discoveries and theories of science to make it sound exciting to Progressive-era society – and they also capitalized on public fear and worry about poverty, race, immigration, and disability.

In many ways, it had legitimacy among many – eugenicists testified before Congress on immigration restrictions as “experts” in the years before and during World War II, many states had sterilization laws, and the Supreme Court affirmed a Virginia eugenics sterilization law 8-1 in 1927. In several ways, it did not. Some eugenicists’ careers in eugenics ended early due to the growing negative response from the public. Some prominent scientists decried eugenics as pseudoscience. And eugenicists in that era failed to see their ideas of sterilizing every “feebleminded” person fully implemented on a massive, national scale. 

Unlike the eugenics of the past, eugenics today – from what I’ve seen – is generally cloaked in scientific legitimacy, using real science like CRISPR and gene editing and genomics. Like the eugenics of the past, a lot of people still have fear and other negative, oppressive beliefs regarding poverty, race, immigration, disability, and more. Like the eugenics of the past, is is presented as exciting new scientific discoveries.  And that makes it just as terrifying, if not more.

(ETA: a good resource to follow is Genetics and Society, “a nonprofit information and public affairs organization working to encourage responsible uses and effective societal governance of human genetic and reproductive technologies and other emerging technologies.”)

The Real Tragedy of Eugenics and a Primer on Buck v. Bell

Many of the victims were, like Carrie [Buck], perfectly normal both mentally and physically–and they desperately wanted to have children.

-Adam Cohen, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck

The tragedy of eugenics is not that it happened to ostensibly non-disabled people. The tragedy of eugenics is that it happened at all. The tragedy of eugenics is that people used the prospect of disability to justify it. The tragedy of eugenics is that anyone, disabled or not, lost their right to choose if they wanted children. They used the prospect of disability to justify sterilizing anyone they saw fit – disabled people, people of color, sex workers, women, low-income people, or a combination of those, for the most part.

Cohen is not alone in asserting Carrie Buck, the subject of the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, was mentally “normal.” Journalist Harry Bruinius discusses it in his book Better for all the World. Paul Lombardo has many words to say about Carrie Buck’s normality as well as that of her daughter Vivian’s in his book Three Generations, No Imbeciles. The Sterilization of Carrie Buck  by J. David Smith and K. Ray Nelson talks about Carrie Buck’s family being actually normal.

Cohen is not alone in therefore implying that there was a correctly targeted group. That Carrie Buck’s sterilization was wrong because she was “normal” and should never have been in the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded. In one regard, he is correct. Carrie Buck should never have been in that institution. Neither should anyone else have been.

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Carrie Buck was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1906. Eugenics took hold as Carrie grew up. Her father Frank was dead, or had simply left – no one knew. Her mother Emma took to the streets and got put on charity lists to try and take care of her children. Emma may have had substance abuse issues with drugs. Emma sometimes went to having sex with different men to try and make ends meet. She had more children. A family called the Dobbses took Carrie from Emma when Carrie was three or four. Emma Buck eventually was put in the Virginia Colony. When Carrie was seventeen, the Dobbses’ nephew Clarence raped her. A pregnancy resulted. The Dobbses wanted to avoid scandal. They packed her off to the Virginia Colony as “feebleminded” after she gave birth to a girl, Vivian. Facts of the case were not observed. 

The superintendent chose Carrie Buck for a test case of Virginia’s new sterilization law. Carrie went before the board of the institution. They voted to sterilize her. Her appointed guardian filed an orchestrated appeal. It was not really on her behalf. The appeal traveled through all the court systems until it reached the Supreme Court.

Buck v. Bell was a devastating decision by the Supreme Court. The 8-1 decision – the only dissenting member Justice Pierce Butler – said that it was legal to sterilize Carrie Buck, a patient at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded. They said it was legal to sterilize people, mostly those in institutions, without their consent. It upheld the Virginia law that had passed three years earlier. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote this infamous statement in the opinion: 

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. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

Buck v. Bell was an injustice done to Carrie Buck. It would have been if it were proven today she actually had an intellectual or developmental disability. It was an injustice to the tens of thousands of people, mostly in institutions, who came after her. It was an injustice to the women in the California prisons who underwent forced sterilization as recently as 2014, and to the women who went before a Tennessee district court prosecutor who forced plea deals involving sterilization. Buck v. Bell has never been overturned in its entirety, permitting legal loopholes. People are still being sterilized today, in the United States and elsewhere.  It is not considered a priority to overturn Buck v. Bell in its entirety. State eugenics laws were not overturned until the 1970s and 80s.

Buck v. Bell reached beyond the borders of the United States. The Nazi Party cited it as justification for some of their war crimes. They drew upon American eugenic ideals. United States officials acted as the primary agents in prosecuting Nazi officials, doctors, and others. Despite its association with Nazism, eugenics is not dead. Nor is its height and prominence a distant memory.

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I encourage you to read the following if you have access to them. Sources to think about, and sometimes critique:

Books that Cost

  • The Nazi Connection by Stefan Kühl
  • Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity by Harry Bruinius
  • In the Name of Eugenics by Daniel Kevles
  • The Sterilization of Carrie Buck by J. David Smith and K. Ray Nelson
  • Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen
  • Three Generations, No Imbeciles by Paul Lombardo
  • War against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Quest to Create a Master Race by Edwin Black
  • A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era, editor Paul Lombardo
  • Fit to be Tied: Sterilization and Reproductive Rights in America, 1950-1980 by Rebecca Kluchin
  • Inheriting Shame: The Story of Eugenics and Racism in America by Steven Selden

Physical Archives

  • The Carrie Buck archives at the State Library of Virginia (Richmond)

Resources and Articles that are Online/Free

Problems with Lorna Wing

Problems with Lorna Wing
I have personal problems as well as general problems with Lorna Wing.
Lorna Wing created Asperger’s syndromeas an interesting new syndrome to try and get people to accept their kids needed at least some services without the stigma of an autism label. Wing played into the binary that autistic people must either be high or low functioning, a binary I reject.
When I was diagnosed in 2007, I was nevernever told it was a disability because high functioning and quirky and depressed are all your problems! Or lack of problems. You suck with people, but everything else is fine! Except you’re depressed, but you’re a teenager, of course! Everything was downplayed.
I now call myself autistic. Under the DSM-IV, I would have gotten an autism diagnosis anyway at the age of two or three. But I was 14 when I was diagnosed.
Hans Asperger never called his patients as having Asperger’s syndrome. He called their behaviors autistic. He saw a multitude of patients, but up-played all of them to save them from Nazi Germany. It was Lorna Wing who found his works and decided to create Asperger’s as adistinction that has had consequences. It is what has enabled organizations to write many of us off as “oh, those high-functioning aspies are at it again saying we shouldn’t cure that terrible disease autism!” It is what has enabled people to write individuals with an Asperger’s diagnosis off as geniuses needing no services. It has enabled people to say, upon the folding of Asperger’s into autism spectrum disorders in the DSM-V,that we’re pathologizing normal people and robbing “significantly autistic” people of services. (The link is my response to the article saying that).

Lorna Wingcould have told the truth about Kanner creating diagnostic restrictions without evidence. About Bettelheim and Rimland creating interpretations of autistic people without evidence. Instead she created Asperger’s, and with it a divide that seems very hard to reconcile.