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Eugenics and forced sterilization on Fresh Air

The Supreme Court Ruling That Led To 70,000 Forced Sterilizations

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The Supreme Court Ruling That Led To 70,000 Forced Sterilizations

In the early 20th century, American eugenicists used forced sterilization to "breed out" traits considered undesirable. Adam Cohen tells the story in Imbeciles. Originally broadcast March 7, 2016.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching sitting in for Terry Gross. One of the worst Supreme Court decisions in history, according to our guest journalist Adam Cohen, was the 1927 decision upholding a state's right to forcibly sterilize a person considered unfit to procreate - unfit because they were deemed to be mentally deficient. That decision is part of a larger chapter of American history in which the eugenics movement was behind preventing so-called mentally deficient people from procreating through not allowing them to marry, sterilizing them and segregating them in special colonies.

The Nazis borrowed some ideas from American eugenicists. The eugenics movement also influenced the 1924 Immigration Act, which was designed in part to keep out Italians and Eastern European Jews. Adam Cohen's book titled "Imbeciles" is about the eugenics movement in the early 20th century and the Supreme Court case legalizing sterilization. Cohen is a former member of The New York Times editorial board and a former senior writer for Time magazine. Terry Gross spoke to him last year when his book was first published. It's just come out in paperback.



Adam Cohen, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with what the eugenicists believed.

ADAM COHEN: They embraced the new genetics that was emerging in their era. And they believed that it could be used to perfect the human race. The word eugenics was actually coined by Francis Galton, who was a half-cousin of Charles Darwin, and it really derived a lot from Darwinian ideas. The eugenicists looked at evolution and survival of the fittest as Darwin was describing it. And they believed, we can help nature along if we just plan who reproduces and who doesn't reproduce.

GROSS: And who was considered unworthy of reproducing?

COHEN: Well, at the beginning, Galton looked at geniuses throughout history and looked to see if genius was genetic within families. And he believed that it was. But overtime, eugenics expanded quite a bit. And by the time it got to America, there were all kinds of categories of people who were deemed to be unfit, including people who were deaf, blind, diseased, poor was a big category, indolent.

So it was really in the eye of the beholder. People looked around, and they saw human qualities they didn't like, and they thought, we can really breed these out.

GROSS: And you left out feebleminded. What did feebleminded mean?

COHEN: Yes, feebleminded was really the craze in American eugenics. There was this idea that we were being drowned in a tide of feeblemindedness, that basically unintelligent people were taking over, reproducing more quickly than the intelligent people. But it was also a very malleable term that was used to define large categories of people that, again, were disliked by someone who was in the decision-making position. So women who were thought to be overly interested in sex - licentious - sometimes deemed feebleminded. It was a broad category. And it was very hard to prove at one of these feeblemindedness hearings that you were not feebleminded.

GROSS: So what sent you back to this unfortunate chapter of American history?

COHEN: Well, when I was in law school, I had heard of the case Buck v. Bell from 1927 when the Supreme Court upheld eugenic sterilization. But it wasn't formally taught in at least my class. And it's not taught in many Constitutional Law classes. But, you know, we knew it existed. And we knew the famous phrase that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in the decision - three generations of imbeciles are enough. When I was thinking about something I wanted to write about, I was interested in the Supreme Court, but in many ways, I believe you can learn more about an institution and more about an ideal like justice if you look at where it's gone wrong rather than where it's gone right. And in any list of Supreme Court decisions that are terribly wrong, any list of the worst Supreme Court decisions, Buck v. Bell would have to rank very highly. (transcript continues)

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