February 9, 2020


Sterilizing the Feebleminded (Richard Drooyan, MARCH 31, 2016, LA Review of Books)

IMBECILES, BY ADAM COHEN, harkens back to an earlier era of strong anti-immigrant sentiment and deep-seated racism when the institutions of law, medicine, and government combined to single out the "feebleminded," "epileptics," and others "genetically unworthy" for sterilization, using Virginia's eugenic sterilization law for the "prevention of this growing blight" on the state's population. This well-written narrative of legal history demonstrates what happens when the powerful and elite in society fail to protect the powerless and poor, and instead shower them with insults based upon pseudoscientific opinions and deprive them of their most basic rights to procreate and to receive due process under the law.

The title of Imbeciles is taken from what Cohen aptly describes as "one of the most notorious statements to appear in a Supreme Court opinion" authored by none other than Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., in Buck v. Bell. In upholding Virginia's eugenic sterilization law of 1924, and the state's authority to sterilize a purportedly "feebleminded" institutionalized young woman "to prevent our being swamped with incompetence," Justice Holmes opined, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Although focused on the single case of Carrie Buck, Imbeciles provides historical context for the eugenics movement going back to the period following the end of the Civil War, the backdrop of social Darwinism, the anti-immigrant hysteria that swept the country in the early 1920s, the embedded racism in Virginia and elsewhere in the country at that time, and the racial theories that eventually culminated in the Nazi exclusion and extermination policies beginning in the early 1930s. Although the eugenics movement focused on the purportedly "feebleminded" and "epileptics," just below the surface was a strong anti-immigrant and racial bias. As Cohen points out, the exhibits at the Second International Eugenics Congress in 1921 included such eugenics subjects as "the relation between natural hereditary qualities and national greatness" and the "differences between white and Negro fetuses."

Posted by at February 9, 2020 5:02 PM