by David Morstad
In the mid-1920s, a woman named Carrie Buck was at the center of a landmark legal case in Virginia. She was considered to be a person with a disability, although that fact has been in some dispute in recent years. This much is true. She was the illegitimate child of a woman believed to be “feebleminded”, she was single, and she had already had a child. That child was also assumed to carry the undesirable genetic structure and was summarily institutionalized. When Buck faced mandatory sterilization in keeping with the statutes of the Commonwealth of Virginia, her guardian challenged the law, first in the Circuit Court in Amherst County, then to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, and finally to the US Supreme Court. On May 2, 1927, the Court decided in favor of Virginia. In his statement, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes defended the state’s desire to protect the “purity” of its gene pool. “It is better for all the world,” he 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.”
The message and the influence of this ruling were felt far beyond the borders of Virginia and the deliberations of the US Supreme Court. This was a decision which, for decades, would create a context for the discussion of disability in light of human rights, human dignity, and even the basic recognition of people with disabilities as full and complete human beings.
Twelve years after Carrie Buck’s surgery, Germany sanctioned what became known as the Aktion T4 program, eventually exterminating nearly 200,000 people with disabilities because they were identified by the official Nazi designation “Lebensunwertes Leben”, in English, “life unworthy of life”.
Following World War II, as Nazi doctors were being held accountable for their actions at the Nuremberg trials, they explicitly cited Oliver Wendell Holmes’ opinion in Buck v. Bell as part of their defense.
Here in a more progressive 21st Century, there may be a tendency for us to read about the atrocities of Nazi Germany with an outrage tempered by a certain amount of enlightened detachment. It is comforting to harbor the notion that it would be impossible for us as a people to return to such an outrageous worldview, ignorant of what we now know today about disabilities and the people who have them. After all, that was then, and this is now. People of faith, called to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, ought to be mindful of two important things:
First, an ugly but essential lesson of the Eugenics Movement is that, as a fallen creation, we seem always willing to believe that the mistreatment or outright elimination of those different from ourselves can be, in some circumstances and to some extent, acceptable and just.
Second, we need not look far. Both the torture of people with disabilities as well as the plans for targeting their elimination are happening today. In 2015. In America.
Next: Something Not Like Us