Sterilization, by contrast, was humane. It was simple and relatively painless. It took nothing from the patient but the ability to pass on the causes of human misery. Far from cruel, forced sterilization represented science and altruism at their most advanced, with goals heroic and noble. Sterilizing Carrie today marked a return to pursuing those natural laws of "elimination"not in an arbitrary and brutish way, but in a way ordered by science and guided by reason. If science had revealed the congenital, hereditary nature of human imperfection, it was now revealing a path toward restoration.
"It is not foolish to hitch one's wagon to a star, for the unbelievable theory of today becomes the proven laboratory fact of tomorrow," Dr. Bell would explain. "And while perhaps a Utopia may never arise out of our efforts to better our brother's condition in this world in which we live, nevertheless, much that is practical and useful and elevating to all can be developed and carried to a successful conclusion by the simple formula of all who are interested in these things pulling together towards a common goal: a citizenry purged of mental and physical handicaps."
This was his faith, a faith in science and progress, and a faith informed by a long-held vision of American destiny. After putting Carrie's chart in order, Dr. Bell could pick up the day's newspaper and read about the throngs of people in Baltimore cheering Charles Lindbergh, the great American airman who had flown across the ocean alone and was now making a triumphant tour of all forty-eight states. It was indeed a momentous day. But beyond those cheers, Dr. Bell believed America's greatness was much more evident here in the calm, quiet infirmary at the Virginia Colony. America, more than any other nation, held the promise of being a land of innocence, free from the defects of the past. This land could be, as so many others had believed, a city upon a hill, a beacon to all civilizations, so long as its citizens remained vigilant, persevered in virtue, and held to their sense of civic duty. Now the Supreme Court had recognized the wisdom gleaned from science and declared this harmless procedure a constitutionally valid means to combat the country's social ills. Forced sterilization would be effective, Dr. Bell knew, and would help purge from American society those defects found deep within human nature. Today was surely the dawn of a new era, not only for the country, but for all the world.
An Epic Quest in the Modern World
In the early decades of the twentieth century, not long after the
technology of surgical sterilization had been devised, state governments
throughout the United States began a quest for racial purity that would
change the lives of thousands of their citizens. By 1927, before Carrie
Buck lay prostrate beneath Dr. Bell's surgical blade, almost 8,500
American citizens had been forcibly sterilized. This "official" figure,
taken from informal surveys by proponents of the procedure and
representing only what surgeons chose to report, would reach well over
65,000 in the decades to come.
Ill-educated and poor, these people were operated upon and mostly forgotten. But they were first the subjects of methodical research programs in which scientists tried to trace and then eradicate the gene pool that caused what they casually referred to as "the three D's": dependency, delinquency, and mental deficiency. Hundreds of fieldworkers fanned out into the country to visit prisons, mental institutions, and the poor rural hamlets where many of their research subjects dwelled. They collected tens of thousands of pages of data on these subjects' family pedigrees. Armed with this data, which appeared to show a genetic predisposition toward moral deviance and mental deficiency handed down through generations, scientists persuaded state legislaturesand, in the case of Carrie Buck, the U.S. Supreme Courtto enact laws giving states the power to sterilize these genetically "defective" Americans.
Excerpted from Better for All the World by Harry Bruinius Copyright © 2006 by Harry Bruinius. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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