Wonderful prose on an ugly topic

September 12, 2011 • 8:22 am

The coda of The Mismeasure of Man, Steve Gould’s book on the history of racism and “scientifically based” eugenics, is one of my favorite pieces of science writing.  It’s a scant two pages, but is beautifully written and so emotionally powerful that it almost moves me to tears.  In it, Gould recounts Oliver Wendell Holmes’s 1927 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck, a young woman who, by all accounts, was of normal intelligence.  Embarrassed that Carrie had become pregnant after being raped, her parents committed her to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded, where she was forcibly sterilized under a Virginia eugenics law.

Upholding that law, Holmes made the infamous pro-eugenics statement, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” (Buck’s mother and daughter were also allegedly “feeble-minded.”)

Buck later married and was desolate that she and her husband couldn’t have children.  She died in 1983, but was still alive when Gould wrote his book in 1981.  Sadly, her sister Doris suffered the same fate: forcibly sterilized, married, and desperate but unable to have children.

The last paragraph of Gould’s book is, to me, an example of his writing at its finest:

One might invoke an unfeeling calculus and say that Doris Buck’s disappointment ranks as nothing compared with millions dead in wars to support the designs of madmen or the conceits of rulers.  But can one measure the pain of a single dream unfulfilled, the hope of a defenseless woman snatched by public power in the name of an ideology advanced to purify a race? May Doris Buck’s simple and eloquent testimony stand for millions of deaths and disappointments and help us to remember that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath: “I broke down and cried. My husband and me wanted children desperately.  We were crazy about them. I never knew what they’d done to me.”

Carrie Buck, who along with 6,682 others (4042 of them women), was forcibly and involuntarily sterilized under Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924.

36 thoughts on “Wonderful prose on an ugly topic

    1. You’re right…that is a truly nauseating article. I was surprised to see Sweden and Switzerland on the list. Guess I’m “still learning”.

      1. Nah, we [Sweden] where one of the worst in the name of “progress”. Also had a nasty forerunner in craniometry*, and run with racism and nazism in the highest classes and universities until WWII. (My alma mater Uppsala university among them.)

        I believe what happened was that that war and its aftermath (where still racism, religion et cetera were decisive on who got the nation’s support) slowly transformed society into something more actual progressive. It opened a lot of eyes.

        But the eugenics program/forced sterilizations are still, after all these years, a matter that the books hasn’t been closed on. Many got some monetary compensation in the last few years, but not much.

        A few years back, skulls taken (i.e. stolen) from the indigenous same populations around the 20th century turn (in the mortuaries I assume), have been returned to their surviving families.

    2. The UK was not one of them. The article mentions G. K. Chesterton as the opponent, but, one of my great grandfathers was the MP who led the fight against it in Parliament (one of the few issues that he and Chesterton probably agreed on).

        1. It is mentioned in other articles in Wikipedia, and, I tend to avoid adding info (as oppose to correcting info) about close relatives in Wikipedia since I realize I have a bias. I’ll note that other members of my extended family were more supportive of eugenics laws.

  1. I learned about this is Jr High and H.S. Biology.(in the ’50s) It was taught with approval.

    Showing the “value” of Eugenics – getting rid of “those people.”

  2. Eugenics, as such, is perhaps a good thing. Many couples choose not to have children if the they judge the genetic risk of a familial disease to be too great (e.g. Tay-Sachs disease.)

    Of course a state compelling sterilization based on arbitrary values is another thing entirely.

  3. And isn’t it noteworthy that it was mostly women who were sterilized. There are plenty of people today who would love to implement a similar program.

    1. I think more in the opposite direction, actually.

      Enforced pregnancy, no matter the risk or the cost, is the byword of today’s theology.

      Because womenz must be punished for daring to have sex.

    1. I agree that women shouldn’t feel that they have somehow failed in their life’s purpose for not having children; but I utterly fail to see how forced sterilization at the hands of a bigoted state institution is the lesser of two evils.

      1. I agree with you, Grania. I think, though, that the poster was talking about having children “of one’s own” as opposed to adopting.

        1. Perhaps my perception is faulty, but it seems to me many people view having biological offspring as the first, more admirable choice, and adoption more as something to which one resorts.

          In an overpopulated world where there are so many children who have been born into miserable conditions over which they have no control, it should be just the opposite, imo. Adoption is the more noble path.

          Which, of course, is not to say there’s anything wrong with having biological offspring. I have a biological daughter. But I think child no 2 will be adopted.

    2. Who’s to say “society” has anything to do with it? A woman can value having a child of her “own”, no matter what society says. In other words, I don’t think it’s right to draw conclusions about “society” from this story about one woman’s life.

      Plus, don’t take this the wrong way, but having children of your own is a trait that’s selected for by evolution.

  4. I once worked as a file clerk at an institution for the mentally and physically “disabled.” It was a government run compound of dozens of residences that had existed in Ontario since the late 1800s. Children were dropped off by parents and abandoned for the simple fact that they were no longer wanted by their families. Many of them were just hyperactive children, with no mental conditions. Nevertheless, many of them stayed for the rest of their lives and since they were treated as having a mental disability, developed accordingly. I could not tell you how many files I came across where upon admission the doctors had labelled a child as “feeble-minded.”

    1. I once volunteered at a similar place in OR. In addition to the scenario you describe, they also ended up with kids that were not at all mentally impaired, just deaf. There were also a number of Alaskan Native American kids there; I look back now and shudder to think of what processes may have sent them there.

  5. “Racial Integrity Act” sounds like something that would have been found in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four… Unbelievable that such a thing existed in 20th century America.

    1. please do believe it. The eugenics Record Office (ERO) was at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, NY. USA doesnt (didnt) fare any better than the worst places in the Universe when it came to human rights. We choose to ignore it.

  6. It makes you wonder how things would have gone without WWII to give eugenics a bad name. I think it would have continued and grown in much the same way as hoards of children were removed from “undesirable” families, and by now it would have been a scandal on the scale of “The Stolen Children”.

    1. Less repulsive than someone who, when confronted with someone who was forcibly sterilized, without even being told what was being done, for a reason that wasn’t even true (never mind whether it would have justified sterilization if true), thinks *her complaining* is the appropriate thing to get outraged about.

      1. To be clear, I find incongruence in a person motivated by populatory concerns rather than misogyny specifying “women” rather than “people” or even “egotists” as repulsive.

    2. Why? If a woman (or a man) wants to have a child, but is unable, why are they not allowed to be disappointed without being regarded as “repulsive”?

      1. Because as long as someone out there has it worse, and you *could* be helping them but aren’t, you aren’t allowed to be sad about your own misfortunes.

        We can apply this logic to just about any first-world privilege: “It disgusts me to see people eating out at restaurants when people in Africa are starving.” “It disgusts me to see 70-year olds complaining about their cancer when 30-year olds in Haiti are dying from cholera.” Etc.

  7. A recent discovery that saddened me was that of Karl von Frisch, whom I have admired since adolescence because of his work on bees, advocating the sterilisation of the so-called feeble-minded in an introductory work on biology published, I think, not so long after the end of World War II.

    1. I do not know exactly what von Frisch said, but I suspect that many biologists who supported a form of eugenics, did so because they saw how nature winnows out those that a civilised society supports. So they would have seen it as ‘weakening’ the gene pool.

  8. the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath

    G**gle reveals it is from Mark 2:27-28, but I am failing to grasp Gould’s point in this context.
    What does he mean?

    1. I’m having trouble with this too. I assume that Gould is using a biblical quote in a secular way ~ I read it to mean that individual freedoms & rights trump the harsh diktats of an ideology

      But, I’m not happy with my interpretation because that makes Gould’s allusion poor & unnecessary ~ it takes away from the piece by adding confusion. I’ve tried reading the extract without the bible quote & it works better

      Perhaps it references something in an earlier paragraph ?

      1. /nod. I like the quote, re-interpreting it as

        Science exists to serve and help people; people do not exist to serve and help “science”.

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