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Do Liberals Owe An Apology to the Victims of Sterilization? The Case of Margaret Sanger

Sterilization--or more particularly, compulsive sterilization--became an issue in America with the rise therein of Eugenics, the name given by the Englishman Francis Galton in 1883 to his newly created science of inquiry. Eugenics had as its purpose race betterment. Eugenics began by asking questions: Why were men what they were? What caused poverty? Why did blue eyes persist in generations along with alcoholism and insanity? The infant science proposed to answer these questions by, first, gathering extensive numerical data. Almost immediately, the data indicated that the breeding of degenerate individuals must be curtailed.

Sterilization was an obvious means, and while many felt that proper education would inspire defective persons to forego parenting voluntarily, more knowing heads divined that, if the human race was to be saved from the furtive, fertile degenerates, sterilization would probably have to be compulsory.

The first state in America to pass a compulsory sterilization law was Indiana, this due in large part to the efforts of Dr. Harry Sharp, an Indiana prison physician, who found in the science of Eugenics the assurance that sterilization would relieve excessive sexuality. According to Sharp, his patients were left mentally and physically improved after the procedure and grateful for the assistance. Freed from an overactive sexual drive, these men could be released from institutional confinement and returned to their communities where they could resume active, normal lives. Many of them had requested the operation, a point that was to be reiterated in future sterilization studies.

The Eugenicists, however, were less concerned with the benefits enjoyed by those sterilized than the assurance that the delinquents and feebleminded would not reproduce themselves--a matter of grave concern as this new science began to document the insatiable lust and the resulting fecundity of the feebleminded and the insane. Government officials and the taxpaying public gasped in horror at new statistics that showed the insane and the feebleminded population exploding, their institutions already filled to capacity, and an unlimited requirement for yet more beds in the future. The unbridled sexuality of degenerates was posing a threat to the nation that more than justified compulsory sterilization.

One of the leading eugenicists in America and the national expert on sterilization was Harry Laughlin, second in command at the well-funded Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, which had been organized in 1905 for in-depth study and support of this new science. Laughlin and his work had the approval of U.S. presidents in and out of office--the less than intellectual William Howard Taft, the extremely intellectual Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, and Theodore Roosevelt, along with university presidents and their faculties and important people from every walk of American life. But the courts did not share in this approval: Laws permitting compulsory sterilization, which had been passed at the beginning of the century, were by the end of the decade being declared unconstitutional.

Recognizing the need for more carefully structured laws, Laughlin wrote the Model Eugenical Sterilization Law and printed it in 1914. (In 1933, it was to serve as a model for the racial cleansing laws of Nazi Germany.) Meanwhile, for Laughlin, it became merely a matter of finding the right test case to go before the Supreme Court.

This was found in the state of Virginia, where in 1924 legislators had passed the Eugenical Sterilization Act. The Act was a carefully written response to the rapid growth in that state of the insane and feebleminded, whose numbers were quickly outstripping available facilities. In Lynchburg, Emma Buck had been institutionalized as feebleminded for a number of years at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, when her daughter, Carrie Buck, gave birth at seventeen years of age to an illegitimate daughter, Vivian. As the mother of an illegitimate child, Carrie was immediately identifiable as feebleminded and lustful, and the experts as quickly certified that Vivian was, if not lustful, feebleminded as well, this testified to by Harry Laughlin (who did not personally see the child). With feeblemindedness and lust so clearly inherited, Carrie Buck was an obvious candidate for sterilization. Carrie was appointed a guardian, and Buck v. Bell (John Bell the name of the Virginia Colony's superintendent) wound its way through the courts. In 1927 the Supreme Court handed down its decision, eight to one, allowing compulsory sterilization of Carrie Bell, and by extension, asserting the constitutionality of compulsory sterilization.

The opinion was written by Justice Olive Wendell Holmes, who was known for his progressive willingness to incorporate current science into his decisions and to respond with contemporary measures to contemporary conditions. Holmes was a student of Eugenics, and he made his own opinion about the necessity of compulsory sterilization perfectly clear in the Court's opinion, which concluded, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." News of the decision brought no particular response from press or public.

Holmes's opinion appeared consonant with overall general respect for Eugenics. Courses on Eugenics were being offered by Harvard, Brown, Columbia, and Cornell, and in 1928, Eugenics was a separate topic in some 376 separate college courses. Public approval of Eugenics concepts was intact in 1937, when a Fortune poll showed that 63 percent of the American population agreed that habitual criminals should be sterilized, and 66 percent agreed that mental defectives should be.

In the decade between 1927 and 1937, Margaret Sanger was running the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in Lower West Side Manhattan. Some years earlier, in 1916, in an act of non-violent resistance, Sanger had opened the first Birth Control clinic in America at 46 Amboy Street in Brownsville, Brooklyn, making available for ten days--until she was closed down by authorities--contraceptive information to poor women. For her trouble, she was sent to jail for thirty days.

By 1923, laws governing contraception information had became somewhat modified, and in January of that year Sanger dared to open the Clinical Research Bureau. In 1927, the clinic was flourishing, a welcome refuge, where women who could pay as well as women who could not pay were given information and supplies to control their fertility. Margaret Sanger did not draw a salary, and often, the regular Bureau deficits were paid for by her generous husband. The advantages that birth control provided to women poor and rich, ill and healthy, were innumerable. Not only were women saved the horrors of multiple births and the poverty and ill health that accompany uncontrolled fertility, but children enjoyed the privilege of being wanted children, whose parents were able to afford them.

In her direct assistance to one half of the human race, Margaret Sanger offered to women their inalienable rights and their individual power, a power not to be manipulated by federal, state, or municipal laws -- the power to bring into the world her children only when it was right for the mother and for the child, the power truly to better the race. As Sanger says, "Only upon a free, self-determining motherhood can rest any unshakable structure of racial betterment."

Accepting the science of the time that claimed sterilization saved the feebleminded, who were not capable of parenting, from themselves and from a life of institutional confinement, it seemed only common sense to Margaret Sanger to approve an operation that had no effects on the individual's life other than to prevent conception. Yet Margaret Sanger had a problem--as Justice Holmes did not--with sterilization as compulsory and with "the difficulties presented by the idea of 'fit' and 'unfit.' Who is to decide this question?" she asked.

Having worked as a nurse in the Lower East Side tenements among those most likely to suffer compulsory sterilization--a far cry from the protected offices of an attorney and Supreme Court justice--Margaret Sanger was aware, as Justice Holmes apparently was not, of the real causes of the ills that sterilization was supposed to address, noting that sterilization did not "touch those great masses, who through economic pressure populate the slums and there produce in their helplessness other helpless, diseased and incompetent masses, who overwhelm all that eugenics [and by extension, sterilization] can do among those whose economic condition is better."

Today, the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes is recalled with superlatives that praise "a rarely beautiful life," "his broad humanity of feeling," his "rare genius for the law." He is regarded as a "figure for legend," enjoying "a deserving fame," "the greatest judge of the English-speaking world." To the knowledge of this researcher, no one has apologized for Justice Holmes's decision that sterilized Carrie Buck, a victim of rape, and that left thousands more the victims of compulsory sterilization.