The United States Eugenics Movement: Outrage and What We Can Learn

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Donor Officer

Every January we rightly turn our attention to Roe v. Wade — the poorly argued Supreme Court decision that was driven by ideology rather than by actual case law.

It was not the first unjustly decided case that impacted tens of thousands of vulnerable lives.

In the early decades of the 20th century in the United States, there were deeply held prejudices against the three types of people: the poor, those with disabilities of all kinds, and people of color. These prejudices, along with their social and scientific acceptability, made up the fabric of what became known as the eugenics movement.

The argument went something like this: if only we could prevent the births of ‘feeble-minded’ people, we could have perpetual prosperity in a society governed by morally upright people. 

Prominent people in law, government, media, business and the 'church' supported such efforts.  State laws were enacted across the country to forcibly sterilize anyone considered unfit.

When the Courts Said Okay

It didn’t work. By the early 1920s, the eugenics sterilization movement in the United States seemed to be on its last legs. Eugenic sterilization laws in several states had been struck down by the courts. In Oregon, a populist movement prevented a law from being passed. Scientists in the new field of genetics called into question the conclusions of those who thought all ‘shiftless’ behavior was determined by heredity.

A proponent of eugenics, Dr. Harry Laughlin, reviewed all that was happening across the United States and determined what was really needed was a model law, backed by research, that would return eugenic sterilization to its former prominence. He wrote and published Eugenic Sterilization in the United States in 1922, a nearly 500 page tome on his research, which included language for a law he was certain would be acceptable to the courts.

Eugenic proponents in Virginia immediately took this language to the Virginia Legislature. A vulnerable young woman was chosen to test the law. Her legal representative actually supported the law rather than his client. The United States Supreme Court would eventually hear it. Their 1927 decision on Buck v. Bell didn’t just make legal an abhorrent practice, it breathed life into an entire international movement.1

United States Law and Nazi War Crimes

By the time World War II began, 30 states had sterilization laws. Germany would use Dr. Laughlin’s model law language to create the Law for Protection Against Genetically Defective Offspring.

After the war, during the Nuremberg trials for Nazi crimes against humanity, lawyers for Nazi war criminals attempted to use the Buck v. Bell decision in their clients’ defense.

Don’t let that quickly go by you: Nazi war criminals who had terrorized, tortured and murdered millions of people attempted to use a decision of the United States Supreme Court as a defense for their forced sterilization program that was determined to be a crime against humanity.

Three Lessons Here

Thankfully, this practice has gone out of favor even though the decision has never formally been reversed. Our culture finds the practice repugnant, and laws have followed. Virginia repealed its law in 1974, but left open some compulsory sterilization until 1979. North Carolina finally repealed its law in 2003. There may still be laws in some states.

Here are three lessons I take away:

First, the god of this world doesn’t easily let go of his evil desires to destroy the most vulnerable among us. The eugenics sterilization movement was nearly dead until new life was breathed into it by just a few people who knew how to use legal, legislative and academic systems to their advantage. We should prepare, as Jesus told us: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16 ).

Second, it will not stand. When Christ returns, perfect justice will reign without challenge. Those who today are strong will no longer be able to rule over and abuse the weak without fear.

Third, until then, we must stand for the most vulnerable among us. Today, the most vulnerable human beings on the planet are those with disabilities in the womb. They have neither the law nor the culture siding with them.

Will you stand for them?

  1. I am grateful for Dr. Paul Lombardo’s work on the Buck v. Bell decision. Much of this discussion has come from his thorough history of that case, Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell 

(@johnpknight) is a Donor Officer at Desiring God. He is married to Dianne, and together they parent their four children: Paul, Hannah, Daniel, and Johnny. Paul lives with multiple disabilities including blindness, autism, cognitive impairments, and a seizure disorder. John writes on disability, the Bible, and the church at The Works of God.