Eugenics, Then & Now: Immigration, Health Care, & Illiberal Progressives

Eugenics, Then & Now: Immigration, Health Care, & Illiberal Progressives March 29, 2017

Last week, we explored the life and legacy of one of our famous Unitarian ancestors, the Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. When Holmes died in 1935, his obituary was featured on the front page of the New York Times under the headline, “Chief Liberal” (Cohen 317). But as we explored last week, although Holmes did occasionally help lead the court to a strong defense of civil liberties and individual freedom, he was not as progressive as his admirers sometimes let themselves think. And his most illiberal opinion, Buck v. Bell, was not even mentioned in his New York Times obituary (317).

ImbecilesIn 1927—only ninety years ago —Justice Holmes wrote the majority opinion in the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell. (If you are curious to learn more, I highly recommend the accessible book published last year from Penguin Press, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen.) The full case name was Carrie Buck v. John Hendren Bell, Superintendent of State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble Minded. In this infamous decision, our nation’s highest court upheld as Constitutional a state law allowing the compulsory sterilization of U.S. citizens deemed unfit to reproduce. In the annals of Supreme Court history, this case has been deemed perhaps “the highest ratio of injustice per word ever signed on to by eight Supreme Court Justices” (266-267).

The opinion is barely more than thousand words long, and worth reading in full, but here is a brief excerpt to give you a sense of its harsh tone:

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. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes…. Three generations of imbeciles are enough. (269-271)

Among the eight Justices signing in support of this decision were Holmes’s fellow Unitarian, Chief Justice William Howard Taft, and the progressive Jewish Justice Louis Brandeis.

In reconstructing how this 8-1 decision was formed,

It was no great surprise that some of the justices signed Holmes’s opinion…. Chief Justice Taft had already lent his name to promoting eugenic ideas. The bigoted and mean-spirited Justice McReynolds, who would not sit next to Brandeis might have been expected to support eugenics—and the same could be said for Justice Van Devanter, who reportedly would join McReynolds in asking the president not to “afflict the Court with another Jew.” Justices Sutherland’s and Stone’s exposure in college to intellectual mentors with strong social Darwinist beliefs could explain their votes. (277-278)

The sole “no” vote came from Justice Butler, the only Roman Catholic on the court at the time, but even he did not write a dissenting opinion (Cohen 278). And although there are some indications that Brandeis was troubled by his support of the decision, Holmes was not. He said, that Buck v. Bell was “one decision that I wrote that gave me pleasure” (Cohen 277).

For the most part, newspapers as well as major medical and legal publications supported the decision. “The New York Times reported it on page 19, alongside a story of Harvard’s decision to build a new dining hall. The front page was filled with stories the editors considered more significant, including one on a 222-year-old tree being cut down in New Haven, Connecticut, to allow for street widening” (280-281). Not everyone was so cavalier. At the time, one of the more prominent voices to denounce the decision was the Governor of Pennsylvania, who said that involuntary sterilization was “cruelty upon a helpless class in the community, which the State has undertaken to protect” (278).

So why bring this topic up today? To be honest, there are strong parallels between the language and logic used in some parts of the immigration and health care debates today and those that led to the 1927 Supreme Court decision of Bell v. Buck. That case is also a challenge to wrestle with the ways that well-intentioned liberals can sometimes become unintentionally illiberal. And exploring the ways we have erred in the past may help us avoid repeating those mistakes in the present and future.

The term “eugenics” derives from the Greek words of εὖ/eu (“good, well”) and γένος/genos (“race, stock, kin”), and refers to various approaches of controlling human breeding to favor so-called “desirable characteristics.” As with many ethical dilemmas, crucial questions to ask are “What’s fair?” and “Who decides?” Who gets to choose what is desirable, what are their motivations, and to what end? The short answer is that many eugenicists—either implicitly or explicitly—were motivated by white supremacy, classism, and related factors. including many liberals who understood themselves as “progressives.” The scary part is that many of these progressives perceived their support for eugenics as simply following the “objective” logic of science. But they were unable to see the ways that, in truth, their white privilege, economic privilege, and other related factors biased their understandings of science.

Confronting the history of Buck v. Bell is also a troubling reminder that the Nazis were not the only proponents of eugenics in the first half of the twentieth century. Rather, the Nazi party “used America as a model for its own eugenic sterilization program…and at the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II, Nazis cited Buck v. Bell in defense of their actions (10-11).

Consider that:

  • John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), the oil magnate and world’s wealthiest man, donated generously to scientific research into breeding out, in his words, the “defective human.”
  • Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922), inventor of the telephone, was also chairman of the Board of Scientific Directors of the Eugenics’ Record Office, “the leading organization advocating eugenic sterilization” (2).
  • Teddy Roosevelt (1858-1919), former President of the United States, said publicly that the unfit must be “forbidden to leave offspring behind them” (3).
  • “When Connecticut enacted the nation’s first eugenics law in 1895—a ban on certain marriages—the American Bar Association’s president praised it as a necessary ‘practical determent’…that government must ‘prevent unhealthy progeny’ to protect ‘future generations from the evil operation of the laws of heredity.”
  • “At the American Academy of Medicine’s first meeting of the twentieth century in June 1900, its president…argued that medicine as was currently practiced was counterproductive. ‘We prolong the lives of weaklings, and make it possible for them to transmit their characteristics to future generations” (56).
  • “Eugenics was taught at 376 universities and colleges, including Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley, and Cornell. Prominent professors were outspoken in support” (4).
  • The feminist Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), rightly celebrated for opening the first birth control clinic in the U.S. in 1916, was also a prominent eugenicist (57).

There are many more examples.

HoPreachingEugenicswever, I wanted to explore this topic not only because of the history of progressives generally supporting eugenics, but also because the more I have researched the history of the eugenics movement in the U.S., the more I keep stumbling upon the names of Unitarians and Universalists beyond the aforementioned Unitarian Super Court Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, and William Howard Taft.

As explored in Christine Rosen’s important book Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement, one significant example includes the Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes, who is rightly remembered by many for his progressive activism and his principled pacifism, but who also helped form a Eugenics Committee of the Liberal Ministers’ Association in New York. One of their goals was to encourage their fellow ministers to agree only to perform “health marriages”—unions which would lead to eugenically approved offspring (Rosen 58-59). Another example is The Rev. Phillips Osgood, who was an Episcopalian at the time that he won the 1926 American Eugenics Society’s “Eugenics Sermon Contest.” But he later became a Unitarian minister (Rosen 124-126). In addition to Unitarians and Universalists, many other progressive ministers were part of the eugenics movement, including Harry Emerson Fosdick (minister of the historic Riverside Church in New York City) and notable numbers of rabbis within Reform Judaism.

I will explore further tomorrow in a post on “Why Eugenics Is Wrong and Why It Still Matters Today.”

The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a certified spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook ( and Twitter (@carlgregg).

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