Eugenics in our recent past

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.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Spinmamma says:

    Thank you for this very informative post. I am aware of some of the history of eugenics in the U.S., as well as the court cases concerning sterilization, including the chemical castration of sex offenders. (Ironic it is now unconstitutional to chemically castrate convicted sex offenders but apparently just fine to chemically castrate male children below the age of consent to further identity sexuality) I had not remembered Justice Butler, and had never known he was a Catholic. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

  2. Man-o-words says:

    I suspect that eugenics programs are alive and well today under more friendly titles. I am amazed at work in my (large) corporation’s interest in my health – heavy emphasis on exercise and what not. Your comment about Kellog made me wonder, given the corporations liberal bias on social issues. I used to think my wife was a little overboard about our food selection – non gmo, organic, stay out of the center isles of the grocery store, check all ingredients. Then I started seeing soy in everything and ran across a bunch bbn of studies about its effect on men . . . I dont question the grocery bill anymore.

    Amazing the arrogance of the Eugenics crowd, it must REALLY rankle our creator to have his creatures do this stuff.

  3. jaykay says:

    Man-o-words: “I suspect that eugenics programs are alive and well today under more friendly titles.”

    Yes indeed:

    They’ve been in that game ab initio. Seems they’re now trying some damage limitation. May that exercise prove as futile as the same exercise on the Titanic. I doubt it, though – the entire establishment has their back, and has had for a looong time.

  4. Matamoros says:

    There are actually two types of eugenics, positive and negative as notes Fr. Attwater:

    EUGENICS. The science which aims at improving the well being of the human race by studying the factors which affect bodily and mental health, with a view to the encouragement of the beneficial and the elimination of the harmful. Statistics are adduced to show that the chief obstacle is the marriage of the unfit, leading to an increase of hereditable evils such as insanity, addiction to drink, consumption, venereal disease.

    The Church has nothing but praise for the aim of eugenics and has no objection to the positive method proposed as a remedy of the evil, e.g., granting diplomas to the fit, endowing them to encourage the rearing of a large family, providing healthy homes. educating public opinion; but she cannot approve of the negative methods suggested by some eugenists, * viz. *, “birth control” (q.v.), compulsory sterilization (q.v.) of degenerates. Compulsory segregation would imply a prohibition of the marriage of the unfit; this runs counter to present ecclesiastical law’ which, while not encouraging their marriage, does not forbid it; the alleged facts do not justify an interference with their right to marry. Where eugenists go astray. it is because they forget or deny that spiritual well being is of far greater importance than material, and that even a tainted existence is better than no existence at all. (A Catholic Dictionary, Donald Attwater, 1949, Macmillan & Co., NY)

  5. Ellen says:

    Jean Webster, the author of Daddy Long Legs was a devout proponent of eugenics. She wrote a sequel to Daddy Long Legs titled Dear Enemy where the pro-eugenics viewpoint is very pronounced.
    The eugenics movement in the United States tried to pass itself off as a positive thing and it never got to the killing that the Nazis did, but they were all for sterilization of the “unfit”

  6. Johann says:

    The spirit of eugenics is alive and well today.
    A disproportionate amount of “Foreign Aid” to third countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America is dedicated to “Family Planning” (i.e contraception and sometimes even abortion) to reduce population growth. A lot of Planned Parenthood clinics in the United States are also situated in poor black neighborhoods (I read somewhere that 7 out of 10 pregnancies by African American women in New York State end in abortion).
    Seems disturbingly like a racist plot to me.

  7. Pius Admirabilis says:

    Unfortunately, my university is most closely linked to Rahner. He is regarded as a “Church Father of the Modernity” here. You can’t argue against him, or you are shouted down by liberal and leftist “academics”. With the canonization of Paul VI, you really have to ask “cui bono?”. Apparently, he is just another instrument to canonize Vatican 2, but among the liberal-leftist mainstream, Humanae Vitae is not much liked.

  8. hwriggles4 says:

    Fr. Zuhlsdorf:

    Thank you for mentioning gravesites of priests. This summer, I attended the National Catholic Singles’ Conference which was held in the Twin Cities, not far from MSP. I took part of a Friday afternoon to visit Fr. Vakoc ‘s (MAJ, CHC, USAR) grave. I prayed the Rosary and took a photograph of his grave. He is buried in the Veterans Cemetery by the airport.

  9. Alaskamama says:

    Two weeks ago my friend was telling me about her aunt and uncle who have no children. When her uncle was in first grade, he didn’t sit still nicely in class so he was sterilized. This was commonplace in the Dakotas she said. She had another aunt who was a teacher and told of many of her squirmy students meeting the same fate – at six years old! The aunts and uncles are now in their seventies or eighties.

  10. Facta Non Verba says:

    Father Z – I had no idea that Justice Butler’s grave was in St. Paul. I am going to make a point to visit his grave within the next couple of weeks. Nice post! Thank you!

  11. TonyO says:

    Rahner and his revolting journal Concilium, and Balthasar and his atrocious journal Communio did as much damage to theology and to priests as any influence you can name. I don’t care that Balthasar was named to become a cardinal by JPII – that pope made similar mistakes all over the place, including Mahoney and McCarrick. These jesuitic modernists spread error wherever they spoke or wrote.

  12. ChesterFrank says:

    Our infatuation with health, fitness, and body types. Our emphasis on intelligence , and educational status. Our glorification of science,technology,engineering,and mathematics and the degradation of religion, arts and humanities. The worship of money. Abortion, euthanasia, genetic profiling, gender fluidity. I would concur that “(I suspect that) eugenics programs are alive and well today under more friendly titles.”

  13. Julia_Augusta says:

    I was quite horrified to find that the Jesuitenkirche in Innsbruck, where I attended a concert, is located on. . . . Karl Rahner Platz!

  14. hwriggles4 says:

    Years ago, even up to circa 1970s, I heard it was common to sterilize men and women with disabilities such as Downs Syndrome and mental retardation (that’s what therapists termed several disabilities until the 1970s). I think doctors back then were afraid that these men and women could not utilize self control, or a female would have a harder time managing hormonal changes.

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