Saturday, April 25, 2009

Lombardo on Disability, Eugenics, and the Culture Wars

Disability, Eugenics, and the Culture Wars is a new article by Paul A. Lombardo, Georgia State University College of Law, author of the book Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell. The article will appear in the St. Louis Journal of Health Law & Policy (2009). Here's the abstract:
The eugenics movement provided the motive for dozens of laws that remained in force for more than a century in the United States, a significant number of which specifically targeted people with disabilities for legally sanctioned discrimination. Similar laws were adopted around the world, perhaps most notably as part of Hitler’s prelude to the Holocaust. Consequently, we tend to associate the word “eugenics” with all things evil. Yet the underlying message of eugenicists was popular for so long not solely because it denoted coercive legislation but more often because it signaled a hopeful future devoid of social problems. This paper describes how the word “eugenics” is now coming back into common use, and how it has been revived in the service of political objectives, divorced from the period in which it developed and the meaning it had within its earlier historical context. The resulting distortions - directly traceable to the ongoing “culture war” over reproductive rights - suggests that we should be careful when we play the “eugenics card” lest rhetorical zeal eliminate the possibility for honest debate.


Craig Principe said...

I found this post very interesting as I am working on a graduate term paper on eugenics: a book review essay using Paul Lombardo's "Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell," Edward Larson's "Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South," and Stefan Kuhl's "The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism."

I wish Lombardo's journal article went into greater detail about the current "culture wars" and in what ways specifically a neutral discussion of eugenics could be useful to current debates. I am not personally aware of the arenas in which eugenics is currently being discussed.

Regarding the context of the original eugenics movement, I have discovered from the books above that the progressive movement and the Great Depression heavily influenced the rhetoric of the sterilization effort. Progressive arguments about social hygiene promoted the view that those with mental disabilities procreated in greater numbers than the general population and therefore were dragging down the white "race" through degeneration. This coupled with Depression-era state budget shortfalls allowed sterilization legislation to succeed over institutionalization and sexual segregation, which at least had been more humane. Justice Holmes' opinion in Buck captures effectively the logic of this context which was that if the state could require the death of some of its best citizens in times of war, surely it could demand less of its dependent citizens like Carrie Buck. I hope this collectivist logic does not persist in contemporary debates.

As Larson's book very effectively shows, there was not a populist movement in support of eugenics. Progressive mental health professionals and doctors in the Deep South lobbied state legislators and governors to push such legislation through. Southerners in particular were adamantly opposed to the state's intrusion into family rights.

With the present budget crises in numerous states, let us hope that individual rights that were not effectively protected in the past will not again become infringed upon by the cost-benefit analysis of the state. If eugenics has any role in contemporary debates, then it should be exclusively within the realm of positive eugenics and should be used only on a voluntary basis. Even economic incentives are ethically dubious in my opinion.

Mary L. Dudziak said...

Thanks for your interesting comments. Since you mentioned Holmes in Buck v. Bell, this article (originally a law school seminar paper for Bob Cover & my first publication), may be of interest:
"Oliver Wendell Holmes as a Eugenic Reformer: Rhetoric in the Writing of Constitutional Law," 71 Iowa Law Review 833 (1986).