On a sunny weekend day in my native place, I might have a bowl of cornflakes for breakfast, then stop at Calvary Cemetery in St. Paul to visit the graves of priests and then slide over to the Pierce Butler Route if I had to go West towards Minneapolis.
Little did I know that there was a connection between the chow, the graveyard and the shortcut.
Last night I watched a show in the American Experience series about the Eugenics Crusade that rose in the 20th c. with truly horrifying ramifications. It is now streaming. It traced the campaign to improve the human race in these United States by breeding out the “feeble-minded”. Feeble-mindedness was connected to anti-social behaviors or crimes: if you did those things you must be feeble-mindeded. Hence, they thought they could breed bad behavior and crime out of the populace through the promotion of “ideal” characteristics and forced sterilization.
The show was not un-political and the politics were liberal. There were not so subtle digs at anyone who wants a “wall” on the border to control immigration. During the eugenics crusade, there were efforts to limit immigration to keep out undesirables like Jews, southern and eastern Europeans who would spoil the superior American gene pool. The writers, I think, tried to suggest a connection between the border issues today and then, which is absurd.
The show did bring up the monstrous Margaret Sanger, of course. However, they were pretty easy on her. The writers suggested that she got on board with eugenics because it was the only way to promote her message about contraception for the sake of liberating women. I thought that was intellectually dishonest.
Also, as a curiosity, one of the strong promoters of the eugenics movement was a guy who was trying to purify humans also through diet and exercise, or “biologic living”. This guy who ran a Seventh Day Adventist sanitarium named John Harvey Kellogg developed corn flakes to help cleanse bowels.
The show covered a famous 1927 Supreme Court case, Buck v. Bell, sad sad reading, in which 8-1 the Justices determined that the state could forcibly sterilize people. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who wrote, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough”. The one dissenter in the opinion was Justice Pierce Butler, a devout Catholic, the first Justice from Minnesota.
Justice Butler was a Catholic Democrat nominated by Republican Warren G. Harding. He was strongly resisted by the Klu Klux Klan and in the Senate but he was approved for the court 61-8. Holmes attacked Pierce and his religion after his dissent in Buck v. Bell.
Pierce Butler, one of only 14 Catholics who have served on the Supreme Court our of 114 total, is buried in Calvary Cemetery in St. Paul.
Buck v. Bell was somewhat attenuated along the way, but in one way or another sterilization laws were “on the books” until recent years.
An interesting tid bit emerged from the American Experience show. During the Nuremberg trials after WWII, lawyers defending Nazi war criminals cited Buck v. Bell as a defense for the “Rassenhygiene” program. Ouch.
BTW… during this 50th anniversary year of Humanae vitae and the recent canonization of Paul VI brings me to think of that caput malorum, Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner. Rahner was persistent dissenter against Humanae vitae. He even had a neo-Malthusian view of population growth.