Racism - The Pure Race - The Nazis learned it from the Americans including Oliver Wendell Holmes. Women and girls found to be "idiots, imbeciles, morons", were "legally" sterilized in the U.S.A.
March 17, 2016
GUEST, ADAM COHEN, author of Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. He was previously a member of The New York Times editorial board and a senior writer for Time magazine. He is the co-editor of TheNationalBookReview.com.
As President Obama nominates centrist Judge Merrick Garland to replace late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, we take a look at what's been described as one of the worst Supreme Court rulings in history. In the 1927 case Buck v. Bell, the court upheld a statute that enabled the state of Virginia to sterilize so-called mental defectives or imbeciles. The person in question was Carrie Buck, a poor, young woman then confined in the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded, though she was neither epileptic nor mentally disabled. In the landmark decision, eight judges ruled that the state of Virginia had the right to sterilize her. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote the majority opinion concluding, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." The decision resulted in 60,000 to 70,000 sterilizations of Americans considered "unfit" to reproduce. At the Nuremberg trials, lawyers for Nazi scientists cited the opinion in defense of their actions. We speak to Adam Cohen, author of "Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck."
ADAM COHEN: So she's a young woman who is growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia, being raised by a single mother. Back then, there was a belief that it was better often to take poor children away from their parents and put them in middle-class homes. So she was put in a foster family that treated her very badly. She wasn't allowed to call the parents "mother" and "father." She did a lot of housekeeping for them and was rented out to the neighbors. And then, one summer, she was raped by the nephew of her foster mother. She becomes pregnant out of wedlock. And rather than help her with this pregnancy, they decide to get her declared epileptic and feebleminded, though she was neither, and she's shipped off to the Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded outside of Lynchburg, Virginia.
AMY GOODMAN: And what happened to her there?
ADAM COHEN: So she gets there at just the wrong time. Virginia has just passed an eugenics sterilization law, and they want to test it in the courts. So they seize on Carrie Buck as the perfect plaintiff in this lawsuit. So they decide to make her the first person in Virginia who will be eugenically sterilized, and suddenly she's in the middle of a case that's headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Adam Cohen, could you explain what kind of medical tests were employed to determine that she was a so-called imbecile?
ADAM COHEN: Yeah, terrible testing. These were very primitive IQ tests from the time, that really didn't test intelligence at all. One question she was asked was: What do you do when a playmate hits you? And whatever her answer was to that was somehow deemed to be relevant to whether or not she was an idiot, an imbecile or a moron.
AMY GOODMAN: Those were the categories?
ADAM COHEN: Yes, those were the three categories. And this was a formal hierarchy that was established by the psychological profession at the time and was actually in government pamphlets. So, if you were of a mental age of two or younger, you were called an idiot. If you were between three and seven, you were called an imbecile. And if you were eight and—from between eight and 12, you were called a moron. And Carrie and her mother, who was also at the colony, were deemed to be morons.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And so, explain what happened to Carrie after that.
ADAM COHEN: Yeah, so, they decide to put her in the middle of this test case to see if the Virginia law is constitutional. And they give her a lawyer who's actually not on her side. It's a former chairman of the Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded's own board of directors. He clearly wants to see her sterilized. He does a terrible job writing short briefs that don't cite the relevant cases. It goes up to the Supreme Court, and the court rules eight to one that, yes, the Virginia law is constitutional, and, yes, Carrie, who there's nothing wrong with, should be sterilized against her will.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And who was responsible for appointing this lawyer to her?
ADAM COHEN: It was the colony itself, so they chose one of their friends. And she truly had no advocate of any kind on her side. Back then, the American Civil Liberties Union, which had just started up, really was kind of pro-eugenics, or at least some of the members around it were, and there were no advocacy groups to look out for people like Carrie.
AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what this term "eugenics" was, what the whole movement was, and who was a part of it, Adam.
ADAM COHEN: Sure. So, it started in England by—it was—the phrase—the word was coined by Francis Galton, who was a half-cousin of Charles Darwin. So this was right after Darwin had discovered evolution and survival of the fittest. Galton and his followers said, "Well, if nature does this naturally, we can speed survival of the fittest along if we decide who gets to reproduce and who doesn't, if we get the fit people to reproduce and we stop the unfit from reproducing." So that was the idea in England.
It comes over to America, and it's greatly adopted by the leaders in America. I mean, the people who supported eugenics included the president of Harvard University, the first president of Stanford, Theodore Roosevelt, Alexander Graham Bell. And universities across the country taught eugenics. It was very popular in the popular press and in best-selling books. This was a mass movement. People believed we needed to uplift the race by changing our gene pool.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to go to something that he said in the decision. This is Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who wrote in the majority opinion for the court, the nation must sterilize those who, quote, "sap the strength of the State [to] prevent our being swamped with incompetence." He declared, quote, "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."
ADAM COHEN: Very shocking. Sorry, yeah.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So I wanted to ask you about the fact—you studied Harvard Law School. And at the time, this justice was considered a hero of the American legal system. So could you explain who he was, what kinds of positions he took, and how he was still revered?
ADAM COHEN: Sure. He was a heroic figure. He had actually been a professor at Harvard Law School before he joined the U.S. Supreme Court. And even when I was at Harvard Law school, there were portraits of him everywhere. He's still a very revered justice.
But he came out of a certain tradition. He was a so-called Boston Brahmin. He was from some of the fanciest families in Boston. The Olivers, Wendells and the Holmes were all old New England families. He was raised by a father, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., who had been the dean of Harvard Medical School. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. actually coined this phrase "Boston Brahmin." And the idea was that these fancy families in Boston were like the Brahmins in India, that they were the highest caste.
So he believed this. He wrote about eugenics even before this case came along, wrote about it favorably. So when the case gets to him, he believes that people like Carrie Buck—poor, white, uneducated people—are much lesser than him, so it's very natural for him to say, "Of course we don't need more people like Carrie Buck; we need more people like me and my Boston Brahmin neighbors." So that was the philosophy.
And it is amazing that, to this day, he's still revered in law schools, because these were some pretty repugnant views. But one reason that can still be the case is that this case is not talked about. When I took constitutional law at Harvard Law School, it was not taught. The leading American constitutional treatise, 1,700 pages that goes into great detail about many, many cases, has half a sentence about Buck v. Bell. They've just sort of forgotten about it and made it not part of Holmes's legacy.
AMY GOODMAN: Where do the Nazis fit into this picture, Adam Cohen?
ADAM COHEN: Yeah, so one of the shocking things about that is that the Nazis actually followed us. We were the leaders in eugenic sterilization. Indiana passed a eugenic sterilization law in 1907, well before the rise of the Nazi Party. They were looking to America. And one of the villains in my book is a man named Harry Laughlin, who runs the—ran the Eugenics Record Office on Long Island. And he was in correspondence with the Nazi scientists throughout this whole period. They were looking to him for advice about how to set up a eugenics sterilization program. He wrote with pride in his eugenics magazine that they based the Nazi eugenic law on his American law.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, can you explain—
AMY GOODMAN: So that's key.
ADAM COHEN: Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: We're not talking about Americans looking to the Nazis, who supported the Nazis. We're talking about the Nazis using American precedent.
ADAM COHEN: Absolutely. And it's shocking also the degree to which there was friendship and cooperation between the America eugenicists and important scientists in America and the Nazis. So, Harry Laughlin, this villain of the book, he actually is given a honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg in 1936. That's a year after they purged all the Jews from the faculty. He was fine with that, because he was actually a Nazi sympathizer.