Random ideas come to me, as they do to a lot of us, at random times. Often when I am driving, or in the shower, these ideas will pop in my head.
Recently, on March 24, I was listening to WAMC, a local public radio station. Fresh Air was on, hosted by Terry Gross. An archived interview between Terry Gross and Adam Cohen, the author of a book called “Imbeciles” was being rebroadcasted. (http://wamc.org/post/supreme-court-ruling-led-70000-forced-sterilizations-0). Mr. Cohen explained that the eugenics movement, which we love to throw in Germany’s face, actually started here in America. Germany liked our program so much they ran with it, resulting in the Holocaust and the horrible experiments that were performed on people, as well as the goal of a master race.
The first such law to address eugenics was passed in 1895, in Connecticut. These laws prohibited people of different “races” to marry. Indiana passed the first sterilization eugenics law in 1907. From there, similar laws spread like wildfire all over the United States.
It occurred to me that all of my grandparents were adolescents in 1907, and no doubt grew up with the idea that eugenics was a good idea, comfortable with the idea of having the feeble minded placed safely in institutions, often called asylums or sanitariums. I could not imagine that my grandparents, who were intelligent, caring and generous people, would have accepted this practice. But back then, the medical society was just beginning to come into its own glory days, where doctors and nurses were regarded as beyond reproach, and never questioned.
Growing up in the 1970’s, there were still institutions that housed people with disorders considered to be beyond the ability of parents to deal with – Down’s Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Retardation – these were some of the categories of diagnosis that demanded institutionalization. Thankfully, soon after, we as a society decided to “mainstream” these individuals. Parents were encouraged and taught how to take care of their disabled children, and we are all better off for it. Instead of gawking and pointing at people with disabilities, we embrace them for their differences. They remind us that we are all unique, and we each have our own disability.
The book, ” Imbeciles”, is a story of how eugenics came about, and how many people who were deemed defective were locked up. Eugenics proponents didn’t want these people passing on their weak genes, diluting and polluting the American ideal. But keeping them in a virtual prison was expensive, and they were not a threat to society as long as they were not breeding. The decision was made to sterilize them and then release the defective people back into society. To validate this practice, “one of the characters in my book, a lawyer named Aubrey Strode, really prevailed upon the Virginia hospitals to say you shouldn’t sterilize anyone until we know that it’s constitutional. And under his legal advice, that’s what everyone agreed. So they decided that they would set up a test case, get it into the Virginia court system and, you know, hope that it went as high as the U.S. Supreme Court to get judicial approval for their law.”
And the case, Buck v. Bell, did go to the Supreme Court under Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, where the practice of sterilizing feeble minded people and anyone else deemed unworthy of passing on their genes was upheld. Here’s the really scary part – this law is still on the books and was used in 2001 to sterilize a person against their will.
That is correct – a person was forced, in 2001, to be sterilized, and the courts upheld this action.
In Buck v Bell, the woman who was sterilized was not weak minded. On the contrary, she read newspapers from front to back and completed the cross word puzzle. She was a problem for her foster family when she became pregnant after being raped by their nephew, so something had to be done. Institutionalization was a common fate of women, poor people and others of low social power whom society considered to be embarrassing or just too much trouble.
Eugenics also determined the eligibility of certain groups of people to enter the United States. Just when WWII was starting, we as a nation decided we did not want that many Jewish people or Polish people with their odd ways and clothing. They were refused entry, and many died as a result.
If that sounds familiar, it should. This is what is happening in our country today. The United States of America, the country who welcomes the immigrants with open arms, has slammed the gates shut. Eugenics is alive and well.
So why did I pick the name “Ramblings from an Imbecile”? People are judged by society, especially by those in power, for their worth. If a person or their “class” or “race” are considered to be unworthy, they may, today, in this country, be incarcerated or deported. Or worse – even sterilized. People who are categorized as imbeciles and then discarded may only be too politically weak to defend themselves. We all could be the next imbecile. Be careful out there.