The eugenics apologies:
Phil Theisen and Keith Kessler of Virginia want Congress to look into the federal government's role in allowing more than 60,000 Americans to be surgically sterilized -- most against their will -- during the last century.
They also want the president to issue a statement of apology, officially acknowledging the U.S. government's part in this sad chapter of our history.
Why does the duo think they have a ghost of a chance of getting what they want?
Perhaps a better question would be "Why not"? After all, they almost single-handedly started the ball rolling that has led to formal apologies from governors in five states that practiced selective sterilization, mostly on people with disabilities.
The advocacy work done behind the scenes, along with persuasive media coverage, helped to show what American eugenics was -- an all-out war on diversity.
They hope a Congressional probe now would serve as a reminder that our federal and state governments have made decisions -- in the name of compassion and morality -- to restrict the basic human rights of thousands of its citizens. If the conditions were to return that made eugenics an accepted practice 100 years ago, Theisen and Kessler and countless others want to be sure our government does not allow past mistakes to be repeated.
The word "eugenics" comes from the Greek meaning "well-bred." It was used first by Britain's Sir Francis Galton, a cousin and follower of evolutionist Charles Darwin who in 1883 took Darwin's "survival of the fittest" theory and coupled it with Gregor Mendel's research in plant genetics. Mendel showed in the mid-1860s that plants could be cultivated in ways to enhance certain "desirable" features while minimizing "undesirable" ones.
Galton figured that if one could do this with plants, it must be possible with people, too.
Galton's ideas had a receptive audience at the height of the Industrial Revolution, particularly among some well-established U. S. families of Northern and Western European descent who felt that social programs, charities and religious organizations had failed to stop crime, poverty, and other "social ills," or to stem the flow of hundreds of thousands of immigrants pouring in from Southern and Eastern Europe, upsetting the natural balance of things, especially considering that the "inferior" immigrants tended to have more children than the "superior" social elite. They also tended to join unions.
The Industrial Revolution also drew hundreds of thousands of workers from low-tech farms to more high-tech cities. Those who had done fine on the farm but who could not adapt to the new technologies became dependent on social systems.
Nearly every state built institutions to house people deemed "feeble-minded," a term that covered various disabilities and unwanted behaviors. They were said to be places to rehabilitate and protect them, but they existed mostly to keep them from causing trouble for people outside.
For taxpayers, though, institutionalization was costly, and rarely led to true "rehabilitation." Some believed that public welfare systems actually encouraged the "unfit" to reproduce.
Luckily, the Industrial Revolution also offered a solution: Science.
The new science of psychology promised that experts could cure "unwanted" behaviors. New ideas in education said training people with specific methods would make them more productive. Captains of industry respected the notion that "social engineering" could improve civilization.
It was a perfect time for the "science" of eugenics.
Followers of eugenics reasoned that people with "good behaviors" came from "good bloodlines"; those who behaved poorly came from "degenerate" stock. Keeping the "useless eaters" from producing more of their kind would eliminate society's burden of taking care of their offspring and reduce the chief causes of crime and poverty. A few short generations down the road, disabilities and misbehavior would all but cease to exist. Humankind, or what was left of it, would be nearly perfect.
America's eugenicists were originally a rather small group. They had, however, a passionate commitment to creating a society molded in their own image. They also had the backing of powerful leaders in the steel, oil and railroad industries. Funding for research done for the American Eugenics Society came from such philanthropic organizations as the Carnegie Institute and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.
Before long, the political, academic, and medical mainstream began assimilating more of the eugenicists' principles. Politicians, including President Theodore Roosevelt, embraced the ideals behind eugenics. Professors at universities like Harvard, Columbia and Cornell taught more than 375 separate eugenics courses. Biology textbooks included chapters on eugenics, complete with diagrams showing how "defects" passed from one generation to the next. Fairs hosted "Fitter Family" exhibits, giving awards to those who had "strong family trees."
Perhaps no group embraced the values of eugenics more than the medical community. Physicians saw eugenics as a thoughtful solution for the individual and for the populace. Doctors around the country, particularly those practicing in institutions, began using surgical procedures on people with mental retardation, mental illness, physical disabilities, or those who exhibited "immoral" sexual behavior -- which might include anything from prostitution to masturbation.
Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, state legislatures began passing laws to protect doctors from lawsuits. Surgeons, after all, were seen as simply doing their part to lighten the state's burden of caring for "generations of defectives."
In 1918 Harry Laughlin, the head of the Eugenics Records Office in New York, wrote his "Model Eugenical Sterilization Law." Virginia became the first state to use it as a template for its own law in May 1924. The measure called for sterilizing "mental defectives" to promote "the health of the patient and the welfare of society." Superintendents of mental facilities had the authority and responsibility of deciding whether an individual "inmate" and the public good would be best served through surgery.
The law was used later that year to justify performing a salpingectomy (cutting the fallopian tubes) on Carrie Buck, an 18-year-old inmate at Virginia's Lynchburg Colony for the Epileptic and Feeble-minded. Buck was admitted to the institution after giving birth to a daughter out of wedlock. Institution officials believed her mother, also a resident there, had been a prostitute.
Sociologist Arthur Estabrook, a field worker trained at the Eugenic Record Office, spent a few minutes with Buck and her infant child. Estabrook looked at the 7-month-old's face and determined that she was "peculiar" and "slow." The colony's superintendent used that opinion to order Carrie's surgery.
The legal maneuver that followed became a test case that made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court by 1927. In an 8-to-1 vote, the high court ruled that the state's eugenics law did not violate Carrie Buck's constitutional rights. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the decision, reasoning, "three generations of imbeciles are enough." Holmes voiced the frustration of fellow eugenicists when he complained that the law limited sterilization to those inside institutions, adding, "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."
Years later, it was revealed that Buck had been railroaded. Her attorney had conspired with the institution and its attorney to give little in the way of defense. Carrie was not promiscuous, but had become pregnant as the result of a rape. Her infant daughter was not feeble-minded, but made it onto her school's honor roll before she died at age 6.
Once the Supreme Court ruled on Virginia's law, more than a dozen other states followed. Eventually, 33 would have laws making eugenic sterilization legal or mandatory. Records document an estimated 65,000 legal sterilizations in the states. More than 8,000 were in Virginia. It is not known how many were sterilized without proper documentation, or in states, such as Colorado, that performed the surgeries without eugenic laws.
Few knew that this was just the first item on the agenda for the most diehard of American eugenicists. Some suggested not only eliminating everyone with a "deficiency," but also severing or isolating their entire bloodline. Some ophthalmologists pushed for laws requiring everyone's vision be examined, then placing those with any sight problems in concentration camps, along with their family members, until they were sterilized. Euthanasia -- so called "mercy killing" -- was not far down the list.
Most eugenicists rejected these methods, however, if only because the public simply would not accept them.
Not surprisingly, the work on "selective breeding" caught the attention of Adolph Hitler, who was just rising to power in Germany. The relationship between German and American eugenicists had been strong before Hitler, but strengthened under his command. The Rockefeller Foundation funded construction of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Genetics, and Eugenics in Berlin. Joseph Mengele was one of the institute's eugenics students. Harry Laughlin's contributions earned him an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg.
Hitler's Germany adopted Virginia's sterilization law in 1933, calling it the "Law for the Prevention of Defective Progeny." Nazi doctors went on to forcibly sterilize an estimated 350,000 to 400,000 people. This effort to "cleanse" the Aryan race targeted Germans with every kind of "defect" or disability. This project started several years before Hitler embarked on his "final solution" to eliminate the Jewish race.
The American eugenics movement lost steam in the late 1930s, after skeptical scientists found that research from the Eugenics Record Office was worthless, that Laughlin and others had used poor research, inadequate data gathering and subjective testing methods. They also learned that the eugenicists used themselves as the models of "perfection" against which to measure everyone else. The Carnegie Institute of Washington pulled its funding in 1939 and the ERO was closed.
Even though eugenics was discredited, thousands more were sterilized in American institutions through the 1970s. Toward the end, most of those sterilized in North Carolina, for instance, were young women and girls. Most of them were African-American.
In 1984, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action suit on behalf of Virginians sterilized by the state. A federal judge rejected the suit, citing the Supreme Court's 1927 ruling in Buck v. Bell, and effectively blocking any attempt at financial reparations.
Fast-forward to May 2000. Phil Theisen, of the Lynchburg Depressive Disorders Association, caught a story about Virginia's eugenics legacy on Lynchburg's WSET-TV. The report showed records with the names of hundreds of people sterilized at the Lynchburg Colony, now known as the Central Virginia Training Center, and interviewed some of the victims.
Theisen emailed the text of the story to local legislators and to a number of advocates across the state, with the suggestion that an apology would be "the right thing to do." None of the legislators responded.
Theisen, though, did get the attention of Keith Kessler, founder of the Disabled Action Committee. He spent the next several weeks educating Kessler.
When the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a major story a few months later mentioning the U.S. Holocaust Museum's plan for a 2004 exhibit on Nazi eugenics, complete with a section on Virginia's role, Kessler and Theisen sent messages to each of the state's 140 legislators again, adding that this was a fine opportunity for the legislative body to offer an apology as a kind of preemptive strike before the exhibit opened.
This time the two found a legislative sponsor, and drafted a resolution. "This is a skeleton in the closet for Virginia that will continue to be there until it's addressed forthright," Theisen told lawmakers.
Then the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran a story about local World War II hero Robert Hudlow, whose father had sent him to the Lynchburg Colony for the Epileptic and Feeble-minded age 16 because he kept running away. Hudlow was sterilized there as a "mental defective." Later he fought in Europe during WWII, receiving the Bronze Star for Valor, the Purple Heart, and the Prisoner of War Medal.
It seemed clear that at least a decorated war hero deserved an apology from his state for taking away his ability to have children, and soon a legislative committee approved the measure apologizing to the victims of Virginia's eugenics.
When it came to the floor for a full vote, however, delegates anxious about potential liability changed the language of the bill to express only "profound regret."
"We could have demanded that the word 'apology' stay in there," Theisen told me. "But we figured that this was at least a first step -- a first step that had not occurred anyplace else."
Theisen and Kessler had already put "Plan B" in motion. They sent to each of the three candidates for governor a questionnaire asking, "Would you, if Governor, offer an official state apology to those persons that suffered from the eugenics movement in the past?" All three eventually responded that they would.
On May 2, 2002, a crowd gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia to dedicate a monument commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Buck v. Bell Supreme Court decision. The brief statement from the newly-elected Governor Mark R. Warner included the apology:
"Today, I offer the Commonwealth's sincere apology for Virginia's participation in eugenics. The eugenics movement was a shameful effort in which state government never should have been involved."
"We must remember the Commonwealth's past mistakes in order to prevent them from recurring."
Oregon disability rights advocates, with inspiration and advice from Theisen and Kessler, were soon on a similar path. In July they went directly to Governor John Kitzhaber requesting he issue an apology for their state. They knew that Kitzhaber, as a state senator, had been on the committee that wrote language to throw out Oregon's mandatory sterilization law in 1983. When Kitzhaber started stalling on a response to their request, advocates enlisted the support of gubernatorial candidates to pressure an apology.
On December 2, Kitzhaber announced a formal apology for at least 2,650 people forcibly sterilized in Oregon.
Ten days later, Governor Mike Easley of North Carolina apologized for the 7,600 sterilized in his state. On January 8, Governor Jim Hodges issued a statement apologizing for more than 250 sterilization victims in South Carolina.
On March 11, 2003, University of Virginia eugenics scholar Paul Lombardo testified before a California Senate committee about that state's eugenics legacy. Governor Gray Davis immediately issued a formal apology to more than 20,000 Californians sterilized under his state's 1908 eugenics law.
Like a chain reaction, the last four state apologies had come quickly -- perhaps too quickly.
"It's good to have the apologies, but I think some of this was done quickly in order to deflect an in-depth review of what happened," Theisen said. "They should reflect on what went on in each state. More details being disclosed would have created more public awareness."
Rather than see the remaining 28 states issue apologies, they would like to see Congress launch an investigation into the federal government's role in the eugenics movement.
"I think an investigation would find that the federal government did have a hand in this," Theisen said. An in-depth probe might also bring to light other wrongs done to people with disabilities by their government.
"The federal government had to know something about it if 33 states were doing this," he said.
Once the investigation is complete, the advocates would like to see a presidential apology, "just like when President Clinton acknowledged slavery was wrong," and a possible national day of remembrance.
"People were seriously injured by the actions of their state, local and federal governments," said Theisen.
"This is meant to create a collective consciousness that this did happen in this country, and that it was horribly wrong," he added. "And it's really meant to be a warning for future generations to think about."
Today's disability rights advocates are familiar with some of the circumstances that gave eugenics its popular appeal. Eliminating certain "undesirable" conditions -- or the people who embody them -- is as much a part of the mainstream today as it has ever been.
In fact, the latest technology behind genetics makes possible what eugenicists could only fantasize. Parents may soon be able to design their own "perfect" children. Genetics researchers are coming up with new, more sophisticated means of screening out many of the same disabilities and traits that eugenics tried to eliminate almost a century ago. Members of the deaf community, for instance, were recently outraged to learn that scientists can now single out a gene that causes some birth-related forms of hearing loss.
"This whole effort also plays into the whole cloning debate, too, the whole point being to eliminate anything considered by society to be a 'defect,'" Theisen said. A Congressional investigation, he hopes, "would slow that down significantly, because we as a society need to look more closely at that rather than just rush forward."
Rushing forward, indeed. "Assisted suicide" crusaders give the impression that it is better to be dead than to have a disability -- or even to be incontinent. Funding for basic social services is continually being cut Politicians are calling for "tax relief."
Some states have repealed their eugenics laws. But the 1927 Supreme Court ruling in Buck v Bell still stands.
Kessler and Theisen have sent several letters and emails to the White House. As of this writing, they have received no response.
Still, the two advocates from Virginia are not worried.
"I never say 'never,'" says Kessler.
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Dave Reynolds is a frequent contributor to Ragged Edge. He publishes Inclusion Daily Express, disability rights news, from Spokane, Washington, online at www.InclusionDaily.com
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