In 1927, American high society was swept up in a frantic religious mania. Leading politicians, intellectuals, philanthropists, educators, reporters, and scientists prophesied that the nation would be consumed by fire and brimstone in the form of “unfit” babies unless it offered up a sacrifice. The state of Virginia went before the U.S. Supreme Court, that temple of modernity, with an offering. Legendary progressive Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes looked upon Carrie Buck, a 19-year-old imbecile with an imbecilic mother and imbecilic bastard infant, and embraced his role as Solomon. It was too late to split Ms. Buck’s baby in half, but the country could take a scalpel to Ms. Buck’s fallopian tubes. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” Holmes wrote in Buck v. Bell, an 8-1 ruling that permitted the state to forcibly sterilize deficient citizens. Eugenicists cheered, Buck’s doctors operated, Moloch smiled.
|Hero to the Left, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.|
Indeed, while elites converted en masse to eugenics, the one large constituency that opposed them at every turn was the Catholic Church, which countered that sterilization violated natural law. Cohen takes this opposition for granted, never exploring the meaning or roots of natural law and why it drove the church to quash sterilization in states such as Louisiana and New Jersey. Rather than confront sterilization on moral or philosophical grounds, Cohen bases his opposition on scientific grounds: Carrie Buck had a sixth grade education, sterilization alone couldn’t eliminate “feeblemindedness,” Jews, it turns out, are pretty smart (they just didn’t know English when the eugenicists gave them IQ tests). It is convenient that eugenics makes for crappy science, but what if it had checked out? Would that make it any more moral?