Summary and book reviews of Better for All the World by Harry Bruinius

Better for All the World

The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America's Quest for Racial Purity

By Harry Bruinius

Better for All the World
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  • Hardcover: Feb 2006,
    416 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2007,
    416 pages.

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Book Summary

In Better for All the World, Harry Bruinius charts the little-known history of eugenics in America—a movement that began in the early twentieth century and resulted in the forced sterilization of more than 65,000 Americans.

Bruinius tells the stories of Emma and Carrie Buck, two women trapped in poverty and caught up in a new scientific quest for racial purity. Buck v. Bell became a test case brought before the Supreme Court, which voted 8–1 to make sterilization a constitutionally valid way for the state to prevent anyone deemed "unfit" from having children.

The court's majority opinion was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes: "It is better for all the world," Holmes wrote, "if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Eugenicists believed that the human race must begin to take control not just of human reproduction, but of ethnic intermingling. With the natural and objective methods of science they hoped to breed only the biologically best of the races and prevent the propagation of the worst. The result: marriage restriction, anti-miscegenation, and immigration laws.

In Better for All the World, Harry Bruinius shows how reformers across the nation transformed haphazard, locally run systems of charity and welfare—mostly church handouts and town asylums—into government-run systems of welfare that aspired to make America a place where social and moral purity could reign, free from the "hereditary defectives" of the past.

Those who supported the programs included Theodore Roosevelt; Margaret Sanger; Alexander Graham Bell; the heads of the Harriman, Carnegie, and Rockefeller foundations; and scholars from Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.
Bruinius writes how many of the leaders of the eugenics movement were New England Protestants who used an evangelical tone that harked back to their Puritan forebears, and who proclaimed their goal to keep the "American stock" pure by excising the causes of immoral behavior.

Drawing on personal letters, diaries, and documents never before used, the author writes of the three scientists who developed the theories and practices of eugenics: Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, who coined the word "eugenics" to describe the science of better breeding; Charles Davenport, the first influential eugenic thinker in America, professor at Harvard University and the University of Chicago, direct descendant of Reverend John Davenport, the founder of the city of New Haven; and Harry Laughlin, Davenport's protégé, the nation's foremost expert in eugenic sterilization and also a leader in the movement to stop the tide of immigrants coming to this country.

The author makes clear how America's quest for racial purity influenced Nazi Germany: one of its first laws, the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring, followed the work of California's Human Betterment Foundation and Harry Laughlin's Model Law. In less than two years, more than 150,000 German citizens were sterilized, preparing the way for the genocide to come. In 1936, the Nazi regime awarded Laughlin an honorary doctorate from Heidelberg University for his contributions to "racial hygiene." During the Nuremberg Trials, the Allied prosecutors were doubtful they could convict Nazi doctors of "crimes against humanity"—since those accused had carried out acts based on theories of eugenics that had been practiced for decades in the United States.

A Simple and Painless Procedure

On a cloudy afternoon on October 19, 1927, as a chilly autumn wind swept down off the Blue Ridge Mountains, rattling the windows of the infirmary at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-minded, Dr. John H. Bell jotted a few notes about an operation he had performed earlier that day. He was the superintendent of this sprawling institution, a campus of regimented brick dormitories and rolling farmland set amid the bluffs overlooking Lynchburg, and one of the country's finest. The morning's procedure was simple, and dozens of such operations had taken place here over the years. But for this patient he wrote with particular care, since it was a case that might draw a bit of attention.

"Patient sterilized this morning under authority of Act of Assembly in 1926, providing for the sterilization of mental ...

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BookBrowse

Bruinius's account, enlivened with many novelistic touches, is backed up by well-documented hard data, including the legislative records that show how 30 states implemented forced sterilization programs; and how many individuals and groups including Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Sanger, Alexander Graham Bell, the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations, Ivy League scholars, temperance advocates, suffragists, and liberal American churches and synagogues all got behind the campaign, inspired by the idea that America could be a place where moral purity and social harmony reigned.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
Kirkus Reviews

Although eugenics has long been discredited as a science infected by social prejudice and notions of racial supremacy, Bruinius notes that biotechnology has once again brought the dream of better breeding to the fore ...

Publishers Weekly

This history isn't as "secret" as the title makes it out to be-it's been told most recently by Edwin Black in War Against the Weak-but Bruinius brings compelling drama to the narrative that should give it broad appeal.

Booklist - Donna Chavez

Starred Review. Bruinius' account of one of America's dirty little secrets is that rare thing for nonfiction, a real page-turner.

The New York Times - Sally Satel, physician

Bruinius stakes out little new ground beyond that already covered in Daniel Kevles's more substantial study, In the Name of Eugenics (1985). And his decision to pay minimal attention to the scientific ideas behind eugenics lightens the narrative at the cost of a fuller understanding of what fueled the passions of eugenicists.

Washington Post - Michael Ruse

Bruinius suggests, rightly, that compulsory sterilization was horrible and not something of which the nation should be proud. However, because he concentrates on individuals and tries to convey their personalities, hopes and shortcomings, he fails to provide any real understanding of them or the issues that defined them.

The Wall Street Journal - Christine Rosen

If Mr. Bruinius's book helps to introduce readers to this dark chapter of American history, it will be, whatever its flaws, a useful contribution to the literature of eugenics. The "age-old passions and human desires" for improvement that Mr. Bruinius describes exist in all of us. In a world where new genetic technologies offer even greater opportunities for shaping human life, it is worth remembering that moral scruples and a respect for human dignity are not as widely shared.

San Francisco Chronicle - Elbert Ventura

[W]hile Bruinius displays a novelistic flair, he occasionally veers into facile psychologizing and bludgeoning sanctimoniousness, wringing every drop of pathos out of a story that hardly needs a heavy hand. That said, his book is a welcome addition to the literature. Better for All the World invites us to look back on the follies of the past and recognize our own reflection in them.

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