Eugenics and the Horror of Forced Sterilization
At the core of every idealist, there reigns a demon of cruelty, a monster thirsty for blood. No one must admit this as a universal law, else time, the suave imposter, could not go on with life, his miracle force.— Elbert Hubbard
The theory of eugenics originated in the writings of the Greek philosopher Plato. The word derived from the Greek “best born.” According to Plato the mating of highly intelligent men and women would increase the number of those able to lead fulfilling lives, as well as adding to society’s store of knowledge and achievement.
This theory was soon dismissed in that it proved inaccurate. Still, many centuries later, scientific advancements empowered physicians to prevent the procreation of children by those seen as likely to produce offspring who would inherit and transmit their perceived limitations onto their children, grandchildren, towards infinity. The belief in this method of improving the genetic pool, though seeming brutish by our standards, was held, at least by many clinicians, as beneficial to humankind.
Retaining the royal blood line attracts natures wrath
Plato's idea of the best born changed with the emergence of monarchies throughout Europe. While someone born into the nobility was viewed as well-born, those possessing royal blood were at the apex of the class structure. As most royal marriages were based on dynastic alliances, a growing degree of in-breeding became inevitable. This resulted in conditions such as the blood disorder hemophilia becoming widely transmitted, its most famous victim being Alexei the son of Tsar Nicholas 11 and Alexandra of Russia. In addition, some doctors and psychoanalysts view porphyria, the debilitating mental illness of England’s King George 3rd, to have afflicted a number of members of related royal families.
- Porphyria is an inherited disorder affecting various parts of both mind and body. Cardiac and abdominal symptoms can occur, but its most notable feature is the tendency to hallucinate, suffer from anxiety, depression, and paranoia.
Aldous Leonard Huxley was born 26 July 1894 and died 22 November 1963 and was a renowned English author, humanist, and pacifist.
What sort of people inhabited Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World?
Like most well written futuristic works, Huxley’s novel puts forward the question-what if…? He then explores a world in which genetic engineering could evolve into a type of utopia, based upon regulated theories and strategies. Huxley’s world differed from that of those who believed an ideal society would consist largely of the intellectually gifted. The work of an elitist, he suggests, would need to be supported by the efforts of those willing to take on the practicalities of producing goods in industrial and agricultural frameworks.
Segragation while maintaining societal harmony
This could only be accomplished by enhancing or limiting, at birth, the intelligence of designated groups. Hence, a calibrated number of infants would become: Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons. A further means of halting potential envy was to play recorded reinforcements to each group of babies, in order to slide into their minds during sleep. Thus, Gammas were urged to be glad to be at the midpoint on the intelligence scale. This released them from the achievements expected of the two higher groups, while freeing them from those jobs assigned to the two groups on the lower spheres.
Still, this seemingly flawless world is challenged when love between two people conflicts with the accepted structure. Naturally, there is a good deal more to Huxley’s work than we have space to discuss here. Ultimately, he is stating that a world of programed humanoids, whose range of emotions and aspirations have been decided at birth, could not succeed. Inferentially, true bravery comes when we accept and voice thoughts and goals, rather than allowing ourselves to flow into a system of streamlined convenience.
The supposed probability of transmitting criminal genes
Social engineering, discussed in America towards the end of the 19th century, became crystallized by an 1896 Connecticut law forbidding matrimony or intimate relationships with “eugenically unfit women” under age 45, if such women were capable of bearing children. Those who flouted this taboo were to be imprisoned for a minimum of three years. In 1905, Indiana broadened the nature of such unfitness to encompass both genders by defining the unfit as “mentally deficient, having a transmissible disease, and habitual drunkards.”
Determined to thwart those who strove to circumvent this law by marrying beyond its state boarders, any such unions made in another state would be held null and void within that jurisdiction. By 1914, more than half of American states had formulated similar legislation. While New York was not among them, eugenics was implemented by the judicial system.
Hence, one New York judge forced a young man convicted twice for thievery to end his engagement to his fiancée. His sole alternative was to face arrest and imprisonment. This verdict did not yield to the tears and imploring of the heartsick bride-to-be. Instead, the judge maintained his refusal to permit a marriage which, he insisted, could only result in procreation of offspring likely to engage in similar criminal conduct. Apparently, the idea of a wife and children grounding a young man convicted of two comparatively minor crimes into a future exemplary husband and father was not deemed feasible. Instead, what he perceived as a genetic root could only succeed in spawning law breaking offspring.
Creating a legal basis for compulsory sterilization
The legal system was far from naïve. Despite the mores of the day, lawyers and judges never lost their awareness that the dam of passion could not be quelled by the most stringent statutes. Hence, in order for the above mentioned principles to be legalized, a form of clinical intervention was needed. Still, especially in a nation where freedom of choice is bound up with its historical framework, any process even approaching forced sterilization could only result in an onslaught of lawsuits, many of which were bound to succeed on the basis of human rights violations.
Intertwining of ethical and financial concerns
It is difficult to discern where ethical and humanitarian views become overpowered by financial considerations. In the autumn of 1916, George Mallory, a Virginian, left his wife and their nine children in order to take a job in a sawmill in a separate county. Once having found suitable work, he planned to bring the family to a place where he would be more successful in providing support. During his absence, the Mallory’s were almost certainly forced to rely, to a large degree, upon aid from governmental and charitable sources. Viewed from the perspectives of these providers, the plight of this family must have seemed likely to generate a potentially long-term drain on their limited funding.
A brutal solution ending in court
During an evening when two ostensibly friendly men were visiting, police demanded entrance to the Mallory home, accusing Mrs. Mallory of operating a house of ill-repute. She and her two eldest daughters, Jessie and Nannie, were sent to the city detention home where they were diagnosed as feeble-minded. This subjected them to the clinical care of Dr. Albert Priddy. (The Mallory’s younger children were placed in a state-run children’s home.) Dr. Priddy advocated sterilization of women unfit to bear children, and was well-prepared to conduct this procedure. Meanwhile, George Mallory, seeking a means of reuniting his family, was given no information or choice as to this upheaval. The bodies of his wife and children’s had become state property.
Dr. Priddy’s justification for saving state benefits
Eager to sterilize those women he believed could only produce offspring who would require lifelong governmental maintenance, Dr. Priddy sterilized Mrs. Mallory, and then allowed her to leave after a six month period of observation and adjustment. He conducted the same operation upon Jessie, the Mallory’s’ eldest daughter. Fortunately Mr. Mallory returned to the family home and was able to secure the release of Nannie from Dr. Priddy before he could sterilize her.
The Mallory’s continuing claim
Apparently, Mrs. Mallory had always done all she could to earn an income. Thus, infuriated by this treatment by Dr. Priddy, George Mallory brought a lawsuit both for his wife’s lost wages during her six-months in captivity, and for the pain and suffering brought about by a violation of their right to produce future offspring. The 14th Amendment of the American Constitution protects every citizen’s right against deprivation of life, liberty or property without due process of law. Where was the due process here?
A victory with a shadow
In court, Dr. Priddy maintained his motivation had been entirely due to “a legal necessity”. His eloquence and prestige were such that the jury acquitted him. Still, after the verdict had been handed down, the judge privately advised Dr. Priddy to halt sterilization until a legal finding could allow him to do so. This meant a candidate must be found in order to establish a precedent. Armored with his usual determination, Dr. Priddy set out to find one. In time, he did.
A precedent in need of a plaintiff
Dr. Priddy was the director of the Virginia colony for the epileptic and feeble-minded, hence his pool of vulnerable women at the facility was abundant. Among these was Ella Buck, who had been deserted by her husband and began showing symptoms akin to those suffered by epileptics. She was consigned to Dr. Priddy’s facility in 1920, where she remained for the rest of her life. Prior to that she had given birth to a daughter in 1906 named Carrie Buck who was placed in foster care at the age of three with a Mr. and Mrs. Dobbs.
The misfortune of Carrie Buck
The Dobbs' ensured her finishing sixth grade. This was often the highest level of schooling for girls at that time. Still, on her final progress report, her teacher said she had done very well, and should be promoted to the next grade level. Instead, she stayed with the Dobbs' and assisted with household chores. At seventeen, she was raped by a nephew of the Dobbs' and became pregnant. Immediately after the birth of her daughter Vivian, Carrie was sent to the Dr. Priddy’s Colony on the basis of her supposed promiscuity and frequent outbursts of temper.
In addition, Mrs. Dobbs, having kept the Baby Vivian, said it lacked the quickness and responsiveness of most babies. Vivian was examined and deemed defective. On this basis, Dr. Priddy asked Carrie if she objected to being sterilized. She acquiesced, saying it was what her family thought best for her.
Dr. Priddy’s recourse to the court system
Dr. Priddy now believed he had sufficient evidence to prevail in court. The grandmother Ella, her daughter Carrie, and her baby Vivian were adjudged feeble-minded and if the proposed sterilization were contested in court, the decision was likely to be in his favor. Carrie Buck became a puppet plaintiff and was provided with a guardian to represent her in court. Dr. Priddy died before the case could be litigated, and a Dr. Bell, now the clinic’s director, was given the role of the defendant.
Thus, the case of Buck vs. Bell became pivotal in American legal history. Reaching the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes endorsed the sterilization of Carrie, stating that “three generations of imbeciles" indicated the world would be better if those such as Carrie Buck were deprived of the ability to bear children. She was sterilized on October 19 1927.
This video discusses the landmark case of Buck v Bell and its impact upon laws regarding sterilization
Alan Turing: chemically castrated now revered in retrospect
Alan Turing was famous for the early 1940s development of computer science in the UK. His “Turing machine” was the first stride towards modern day computing. It was his expertise that unscrambled the Nazi secret enigma code used in the Second World War. Politicians of the day considered his work saved the lives of millions by shortening the length of the war before Hitler developed a nuclear capability.
In 1952 Turing pleaded guilty under the C.L.A.1885 Act to having a homosexual relationship with a man 20 years his junior. (Regina v. Turing and Murray) His sentencing options were imprisonment or chemical castration via injection. He chose the course of injections which continued for 12 months rendering him impotent.
Consequently, although considered a genius in his field he was nevertheless refused entry to the USA as well as the government departments and institutes where he commanded utmost respect. In 1954 he died from cyanide poisoning. Although recorded as suicide, there is some debate as to whether his death was accidental or caused by murder.
Over 50 years later the Prime Minister of the UK on behalf of parliament and the people publicly recognized that one of the greatest pioneers of human development had been egregiously punished. Regarding the crime itself, in 2013 Queen Elizabeth 11 issued a posthumous pardon.
Reasons for voluntary castration
Historically, it has sometimes seemed worthwhile for a male adolescent to forfeit his ability to father children. Those either wishing or feeling financially forced to work as musicians or perform other tasks in harems, found this career required the sacrafice. In addition to harems, queens such as Cleopatra deemed it proper to allow eunuchs to become nearly as close to them as their ladies-in-waiting.
Another group sometimes consenting to this operation were those who wished to continue their work as soprano singers or actors during those times when women were not allowed to take part in plays, such as those written by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Throughout the ages, members of various monastic orders and other men wishing to maintain chastity have opted for this procedure, at times self-inflicted.
As well a woman with a eunuch play as with another woman— Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare
Changes in motivations and treatments
Currently, medical castration can be performed, often on an out-patient basis. Vasectomies are a form of male sterilization, which can be done surgically, or with laser treatment. Reasons can stem from the fear of passing hereditary diseases onto one’s offspring, or a simple desire not to father children. Those with a criminal record sometimes agree to ingest medications which will impede their urge for forced intimacy.
This video discusses aspects of eugenics and disability
Ethical right to bear children with hereditary disorders
Many Americans were appalled when, in 1991, a televised talk show hosted by Jane Norris invited those watching the program to phone in and voice their views as to the ethical right of the then pregnant anchorwoman Bree Walker to give birth to children.
This discussion centered on the fact of her having Ectrodactyly, a condition sometimes called cleft hands and feet, which could be hereditary. Aside from the affront to the elegant and articulate Bree Walker, this debate held echoes of the theory of eugenics, which led to the compulsory sterilization of countless men and women. The question, then as now, becomes which human beings are deemed worthy to contribute to our global gene pool, and who has the right to formulate and/or act upon such a decision.
- Ectrodactyly is a rare genetic condition, causing the fingers and toes to be stumped and fused together.
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- Brookes, Martin: Extreme measures: The dark visions and bright ideas of Francis Galton. Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC 2004.
- Bruinius, Harry: Better for All the World: The secret history of forced sterilization and America’s quest for racial purity. Publisher: Vintage Books 2007.
- Burge, James: Heloise & Abelard: A new biography: Publisher: HarperOne 2006.
© 2014 Colleen Swan