Imagine a world in which it is legal to forcibly sterilize someone because they are considered a “moron;” a danger to the future health of the human race. If you are an American citizen, you live in that world. This is no dystopian Sci-fi fantasy. This is the real world where at least up until 2012, it was being practiced in our country. The technical term is “eugenics,” meaning, good birth. For a sad, yet gripping account of our nation’s history with human engineering, listen to National Public Radio’s podcast “Radiolab,” from July 17, 2019). Radiolab is a masterfully produced, thought-provoking and often moving work of modern journalism. This episode is a historical hall of horrors. It traces a dark thread beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, when some in the scientific community commandeered Darwin’s principle of “natural selection,” believing they could do better than nature. Why wait thousands of years for inferior forms of life to be gradually eliminated when we could do it post haste? Hence, the justification for, and legalization of, forced sterilization.
S. Joseph Scott
Special for News Talk Florida
Those deemed “unfit” for the good of society must not be allowed to reproduce their kind. The “feeble minded” also defined as “morons, idiots or imbeciles” were perceived a danger to the progressive improvement of the species. Through a grotesque series of events the issue of forced sterilization wound its way. All the way, to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1927, in the case of Buck v Bell, the Court ruled that Virginia’s forced sterilization law was indeed constitutional! Lawful. Sanctioned by the highest court in the land. The Last word! Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes concluded, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” That ruling stands to this day. It has never been overturned. Though all of the states have outlawed the practice, the podcast demonstrates that up to 2012 in West Virginia “sterilization of mental defectives” was not only legal but still in practice.
Jad Abumrad and Lulu Miller do a masterful job of telling the dark and disturbing tale. They include a moving interview with a victim who, against her will, was sterilized. She always longed to have children and now carries with her a baby doll, Mary, as a surrogate. It is a stirring piece of contemporary storytelling as one is drawn into their outrage at the injustice involved in the eugenics movement. It is no less than, “A form of extermination, slowly wiping out a certain kind of person.” The hosts, and I imagine virtually every listener, is left seething. Sickened even; like standing in a room, echoes of evil laughter assaulting your eardrums as you look into the “fun” house mirror that is Nazi Germany. Anyone with any moral sensibility recoils with indignation.
But, here is the reality, eugenics is still very much alive in our own nation and around the world. We continue to slowly, systematically, “scientifically” wipe out certain kinds of people. Iceland and Denmark have virtually eliminated Down syndrome births. In France roughly 77% of Down Syndrome children are put to death before they see the light of day. We, in our nation, are rapidly moving in the same direction. Although statistics are hard to pin down, the United States has an estimated 67% termination rate for Down Syndrome pregnancies. As genetic testing becomes increasingly precise and able to mark other kinds of birth defects the numbers will climb. Other kinds of “mental defectives” will be culled from the race.
And, where is the eugenic outrage? This is unequivocally the selection of certain kinds of persons for systematic elimination. It is eradication of some human beings on the sole basis of traits we deem undesirable. It is saying that certain kinds of persons are “unfit” for existence. If we were making this determination after the children were born there would be public demonstrations against eugenic infanticide. But, push the decision back a few weeks. Silence. The authors of the podcast fail to follow their own logic and moral indignation. If we follow their moral reasoning, we must admit what is inescapable. We as a society are engaged in one of the grosest experiments with eugenics in the history of humanity.
Radiolab ends the episode with a moving interview of Ivanova Smith, an autistic woman and advocate for the disability community. She believes in the recent past she was a likely candidate for forced sterilization. She, however, enjoys legal protection today. That protection afforded her the opportunity to attend school, get married and eventually, to get pregnant.
Upon the discovery of her pregnancey, a nurse handed her paperwork for an abortion, as if she were unqualified to be a mother. When asked about her fitness to raise a child Ivanova responds, “there is a little human being inside me. I am going to do my best to love them.” Wisdom and truth spoken by one who in the past was defined as a “moron” unfit to reproduce her kind. We recognize it is morally reprehensible to systematically eliminate certain kinds of persons whom some have determined to be unfit for society. But, we are unwilling to extend our protections to all, irrespective of their stage of development.
There is a little human being in there. And every human being has the right to be protected from the systematic elimination of their “kind.” We are “fearfully and wonderfully made” being “woven together in the womb” by the hand of our creator (Psalm 139:13-14). Let’s be consistent in our outrage and in our protections of the rights of all.
S. Joseph Scott has a Ph.D. in theology and has served in leadership positions in both higher education and religious institutions. He has published in both academic and popular journals and has a special interest in the intersection of faith and culture.