From the September 29, 2003, issue of National Review

Pandora Revisited

War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race, by Edwin Black (Four Walls Eight Windows, 592 pp., $27)

WESLEY J. SMITH

Edwin Black has written what may well be the best book ever published about the American eugenics movement and the horrific events it spawned. Combining exhaustive research, a very readable style, and just the right touch of moral outrage, Black splendidly conveys the evil depth and breadth of eugenics philosophy, the pseudo-science and social theory that unleashed a half-century of war against society’s most vulnerable citizens.


 

Eugenics (the name means “good in birth”) originated with an English statistician named Francis Galton. Influenced by the evolutionary theories of his cousin Charles Darwin, and also by Gregor Mendel’s genetic experiments with peas, Galton hoped to improve the human gene pool through “positive eugenics,” that is, encouraging those he deemed to have the best genetic stock, i.e., people like him, to marry and procreate bountifully. This may sound to some innocuous at first blush, but, as history repeatedly has demonstrated, once we accept the pernicious premise that some people are “superior” to others — the core principle of eugenic thinking — we open the door to great evils. The eugenicist who was first to move through that open door was not Galton himself but Charles Benedict Davenport — one of the true villains of the 20th century. As director of the Station for Experimental Evolution in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., from its founding in 1904 until his retirement in the mid 1930s, Davenport energetically promoted eugenics. For three decades Cold Spring Harbor was command-central for forces striving to “redirect human evolution,” a euphemism for the war waged by the strong in America and other countries against people with developmental and physical disabilities and those with allegedly inheritable moral failings such as criminality, alcoholism, promiscuity, and pauperism. (Cold Spring Harbor was made possible by generous funding from the Carnegie Institute. Carnegie realized the error of its ways only after Davenport retired; it pulled the plug on its eugenics funding in 1939.)

Involuntary sterilization was the primary weapon that practicing eugenicists wielded against those whom they judged “unfit.” Indiana in 1907 became the first state to legalize forced sterilization; several other states followed suit. But it took a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, the infamous Buck v. Bell (1927), to whip the winds of eugenics into full hurricane strength. Black’s 15-page rendition of the profound injustice done to Carrie Buck by the very people in medicine and law who should have protected her is heartbreaking. The daughter of a prostitute, Carrie became pregnant, allegedly after being raped by her foster cousin. After the baby’s birth, her foster family, who appear to have been exceptionally cruel, had Carrie declared “feebleminded by the laws of heredity” and forcibly institutionalized.

Virginia had just legalized eugenic sterilization. Here was a splendid case for eugenic action: A woman whose prostitute mother was also institutionalized for feeblemindedness had given birth out-of-wedlock to an infant who would undoubtedly also be feebleminded. This was precisely the kind of down-the-generations history that eugenicists were determined to halt. But Carrie’s tormentors saw an even greater opportunity in her plight: They decided to make Carrie a federal test case to gain explicit constitutional sanction for eugenic-sterilization laws. Toward that end, they picked a well-known eugenicist to serve as her lawyer: a man with close ties to Carrie’s institution who had himself approved many eugenic sterilizations.

Unfortunately, these predators got precisely what they were looking for when the misanthropic Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for an 8–1 Supreme Court, eagerly ruled in favor of sterilizing Carrie Buck: “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 . . . The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles is enough.”

As we have seen many times in our history, Supreme Court decisions play an important role in social leadership — toward moral redemption or moral ruin, as the case may be. In this case, it was the latter: The Supreme Court’s imprimatur opened the eugenics floodgates. There had been about 6,000 eugenic sterilizations in the U.S. between 1907 and 1927. By 1940, the total had climbed to nearly 36,000. By the time eugenic sterilizations ended in this country in the 1970s, nearly 70,000 Americans had been sterilized, all under the color of law.

One of Black’s most interesting sections details Margaret Sanger’s close ties to eugenics. Black is a fan of Sanger, believing her to have been a “visionary reformer.” He also unequivocally states his support for Planned Parenthood (apparently ignoring that organization’s support for late-term eugenic abortion). Thus, he clearly has no “pro-life” ax to grind, no desire to besmirch Sanger’s memory. This renders his clear and impeccably documented recitation of Sanger’s heartless eugenic beliefs and her tight embrace of social Darwinism — she opposed charitable efforts to assist the poor and downtrodden — all the more devastating.

“Sanger was an ardent, self-confessed eugenicist,” he writes, who turned “her otherwise noble birth-control organizations into a tool for eugenics, which advocated for mass sterilization of so-called defectives, mass incarceration of the unfit, and draconian immigration restrictions.” Not only that, but Sanger engaged repeatedly in what today would be labeled hate-speech, referring “to the lower classes and the unfit as ‘human waste’ not worthy of assistance,” and proudly spouting “the extreme eugenic view that human ‘weeds’ should be ‘exterminated.’” Sanger apparently never shed these odious beliefs; Black quotes speeches and comments she made in favor of eugenics as late as 1953. Such attitudes — basically, a rejection of the sanctity and equality of human life — led Sanger and many other eugenicists to embrace euthanasia of the unfit as another means of eugenically improving society, an approach that Black labels “eugenicide.” Some (although not Sanger) went so far as to advocate the use of “lethal chambers” for the mass killing of the unfit.

Unfortunately, Black’s chapter about the deep and abiding connections between eugenics and euthanasia is his weakest. A man of distinctly modernist instincts, Black strives to separate eugenic euthanasia from mercy killing for reasons of pain and illness. But that is far easier said than done: Permitting euthanasia of the seriously ill in the Netherlands has led directly to the legitimization and legalization of eugenic infanticide of babies born with disabilities. (According to a 1997 article in the British medical journal The Lancet, 8 percent of all deaths of Dutch infants result from lethal injections by doctors.) In Canada, Robert Latimer became a hero of the international euthanasia movement — and of many in the Canadian general public — when he murdered his 12-year-old daughter Tracy because she had cerebral palsy. The trial judge even called Tracy’s murder “altruistic.” (For those interested in a deeper exploration of the many ties between eugenics and euthanasia, I recommend the recent book A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America, by Ian Dowbiggin.)

Thankfully, the U.S. balked at implementing eugenic euthanasia. But, as every reader knows, Germany did not: More than 250,000 disabled Germans were systematically murdered between 1939 and 1945. What is less known is that much of the inspiration for the Nazis’ eugenic euthanasia did not derive from Hitler’s ideology; rather, he and other German euthanasia advocates derived their inspiration from American eugenicists — who provided their German counterparts with what Black calls “the inspirational blueprints for Germany’s rising tide of race biologists and race-based hate mongers.”

The result was the Holocaust — and Black does not shrink from it, taking us on a harrowing journey through the eugenic horrors of the Third Reich and into the very bowels of Buchenwald and Auschwitz. It is difficult reading, but it is a subject we must repeatedly engage if “never again” is to remain more than a slogan.

For obvious reasons, eugenics faded from view after World War II. But it was only hibernating. It has reawakened, Black warns, in the guise of a utopian “newgenics,” advocated by “self-ordained experts” in bioethics and bioscience who urge that we harness the nature-changing power of genetics and the energy of entrepreneurial enterprise to once again chase in vain after the mirage of human perfection.

Black’s warning is well worth heeding. Over the last 30 years, academics and bioethicists have espoused beliefs and attitudes that are eerily reminiscent of those of Charles Davenport and his ilk, ideas that now, like then, threaten the most weak and vulnerable among us. As with the old eugenics, the new eugenics is led by the intelligentsia and academic elite. Once again, the most respected foundations are funding it. Today, the belief in the inherent moral equality of all human life has been badly undermined by advocates who would judge human moral worth upon subjective “quality of life” criteria. There is even a nascent social movement called transhumanism, which advocates seizing control of human evolution and creating a utopian “post-human” future through genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and cyber-modification of the human genome.

Many advocates of the new eugenics hubristically believe they can avoid the horrors of the old eugenics. But the acorn does not fall far from the tree. As Black’s powerful history demonstrates, once the odious notion that some of us are better than others of us achieves a critical mass of legitimacy, inexorable forces are set in motion that drive society with the implacable force of gravity toward the abyss.

—Mr. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and an attorney for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. His current book is the revised and updated Forced Exit: The Slippery Slope from Assisted Suicide to Legalized Murder.

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