Monday, June 29, 2009

Curry Reviews Two Books on Eugenics and Law

Lynne Curry, Eastern Illinois University, has just published on H-Law her review of two books on the legal history of eugenics:

Victoria F. Nourse. In Reckless Hands: Skinner v. Oklahoma and the Near-Triumph of American Eugenics. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008. 240 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-393-06529-9.

Paul A. Lombardo. Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. Photographs. xiv + 365 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8018-9010-9.

Curry's review, entitled "Intellectual Seduction: The Promise and Perils of Eugenics," commences:
In the first half of the twentieth century, a right to control one’s own body did not exist in the same sense that we take rather for granted today. The state enjoyed broad powers to infringe on individual rights in the name of protecting the public’s health and safety. While this application of the state’s “police powers” has a very long history in law, at the turn of the twentieth century changing medical understandings of the etiology of contagious diseases inspired new confidence that law could be employed in the service of preventing deadly epidemics, such as smallpox and diphtheria. In 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Jacobson v. Massachusetts that states can require individuals to be vaccinated, thereby establishing a crucial precedent for public health law and policy. It was within this context that eugenics, a pseudo-scientific movement advocating social control over human reproduction, took root and thrived. “Eugenics” is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of ideas, policies, and programs, within which varying weights were assigned to the relative influences of nature and nurture. Some eugenicists, analogizing from the germ theory of disease, argued that the United States faced an extreme risk of degeneracy due to the unchecked breeding of the physically, mentally, and morally unfit whose defective “germ plasm” threatened to undermine the health and welfare of future generations. Such fears were translated into state laws, founded on the Jacobson precedent, that mandated the sexual sterilization of the reproductively unworthy, with or without their consent--and often without their knowledge. In 1907, Indiana became the first state to mandate sterilization; by 1940, thirty states had enacted laws aimed at preventing criminals and the mentally “defective” from procreating. Legal challenges resulted in two landmark Supreme Court cases, Buck v. Bell (1927) and Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942). Both opinions remain well known and, for differing reasons, controversial today. Given the contemporary resurgence of scientific and popular interest in genetic explanations for a range of physical ailments and human behavior, both rulings are highly relevant as well. It is therefore most fortunate that two excellent and engaging books have arrived bringing renewed attention to these cases.