Protestant judge Lothar Kreyssig and Catholic Bishop Clemens von Galen courageously resisted the Nazis’ war on the disabled. Sadly, that war still rages today. And America has been on the front lines for nearly a century.
The story is told in two indispensible books: War Against the Weak by Edwin Black and Better for All the World by Harry Brunius. Both Black and Brunius tell us the all-but-forgotten story of how the United States tried to stop what Theodore Roosevelt called the “wrong type” from perpetuating themselves.
The idea that we can manage who is born and who isn’t is called eugenics. It was the creation of an Englishman (Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin), but it didn’t really take off until it reached America. And whereas Galton’s goal was to persuade the “right type” of people to have more children, his American disciples were more concerned with reducing births among the “wrong type.”
The weapon of choice in what a colleague of mine has called “apple pie eugenics” was forced sterilization. Between 1907 and 1927, “the United States [shockingly] became the pioneer in state-sanctioned programs to rid society of the ‘unfit.’” Thirty states enacted forced-sterilization laws.
And it didn’t take much to be considered “unfit.” New York actually contemplated prohibiting marriage between people who wore glasses and others who didn’t!
Apple-pie eugenics reached its peak in the 1927 Supreme Court case, Buck v. Bell. The famous Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, upholding Virginia’s decision to sterilize Carrie Buck, said “It is better for all the world” if “society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” He then concluded infamously with the words, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
It didn’t matter that neither Buck nor her mother were “imbeciles” or that the “science” behind eugenics was quackery. What mattered was that it offered the chance to remake society– in other words, to play God.
As Brunius and Black chronicle, what was going in America was closely followed abroad. Countries such as Canada, Sweden and, yes, Germany used American laws as models for their own statutes.
And American eugenicists actually offered both technical and moral support to the Third Reich’s program.
While Nazi crimes and atrocities exposed the horror of eugenics, the idea of playing God, and the war on the weak it entails, has never gone away. What Black calls “newgenics” seeks to achieve many of the same goals in a “kinder, gentler” way.
The most obvious example is prenatal genetic testing. This is how we get Down Syndrome children identified in the womb and kill them. Since we are years, if ever, from being able to fix genetic abnormalities inutero, the logic of prenatal genetic testing is inexorably tied to taking lives, not alleviating suffering.
Just think how society has advanced—now we can solve the problem of the “manifestly unfit” in a way earlier generations of eugenicists could only have dreamed of: getting rid of them without the bad publicity. Who will resist on behalf of the victims?