One of the Supreme Court's Worst Decisions Was About Science

One of the Supreme Court's Worst Decisions Was About Science
Harris & Ewing
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Eugenics, the notion of improving the genetic quality of the human race through selective breeding, is a dark stain upon science's past. It is a prime example of how science can be misused to support nefarious ends.

Eugenics is most commonly associated with Nazi Germany, where poor, mentally ill, blind, deaf, developmentally disabled, promiscuous, homosexual, and Jewish people (among countless other groups) were murdered by the millions in an effort to purify the populace and create a master race. But we must not forget that eugenics also has a prominent legacy in the United States, one which began well before the Nazis sowed their own, much darker history.

When scientific research made clear that traits are heritable and passed on from parent to offspring through genes, individuals in society began wondering how these findings could be applied to humans in an effort to improve our species. This notion, originally opined by Sir Francis Galton in the 1860s in the United Kingdom, soon spread to the United States. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, prominent Americans including Alexander Graham Bell, Margaret Sanger, and even Theodore Roosevelt expressed support.

By the 1920s, eugenics was a genuine movement. As author and pediatrician Paul Offit describes in his new book, Pandora's Lab, Hundreds of colleges taught courses on the subject. It appeared in the majority of high school biology textbooks. There were fairs, meetings, and advertisements. The nationwide campaign convinced citizens and legislatures – forty-one states eventually prohibited marriage by those deemed feeble-minded or insane, and a few states even instituted policies of forced sterilization.

It was Virginia's law on forced sterilization that eventually reached the Supreme Court. The case, Buck v. Bell, argued ninety years ago, pitted the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded against one of its patients, Carrie Buck. The colony's superintendent, Dr. John Hendren Bell, wanted to sterilize Buck. His lawyers argued that Buck was a "genetic threat" to society. Buck's lawyer argued that she had a right to procreate which was being violated.

The Court sided 8 - 1 with the colony. The majority opinion, penned by the legendary justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, seems like it originated from a dystopian work of science fiction:

"We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, to prevent our being swamped with incompetence... The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes."

"Carrie Buck is a feeble-minded white woman. She is the daughter of a feeble-minded mother in the same institution, and the mother of an illegitimate feeble-minded child. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crimes, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind... Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Unfortunately, Holmes' opinion was very real and far-reaching. Not only did it result in the sterilization of Buck, it also led to the sterilization of as many as 70,000 people over the next fifty years. Equally clear evidence of the decision's warped sense of justice came during the Nuremburg Trials after World War II, when Nazi war criminals utilized it for their defense.

In his book on the subject published last year, New York Times journalist Adam Cohen, himself a lawyer and former president of the Harvard Law Review, made clear that he considers Buck v. Bell one of the worst supreme court decisions of all time.

"There was something just so ugly about this decision," he told NPR in an interview. "When [we] think about what we want the Supreme Court to be, what the founders wanted the Supreme Court to be, it was supposed to be our temple of justice, the place that people could go when all the other parts of our society, all the other parts of the government, were not treating them right."

Ninety years ago, the Supreme Court utterly failed to uphold that vision. The United States' unjust and immoral eugenics movement could have been dealt a serious blow that day. Instead it was permitted to flourish with the blessing of the highest court in the land.

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