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Davenport chose Harry Laughlin, a Missouri school teacher, to be his friend and eugenic protégé. Laughlin was also the son of deeply-pious parents, a couple with a faith more progressive than Puritan, yet who both maintained a belief in American manifest destiny.  Laughlin's father was a minister and his mother was a social reformer in the Midwest women's movement, and both crusaded for temperance, suffrage, and social change.  Laughlin followed in their progressive tradition, devoting himself to eugenic sterilization and becoming the nation's foremost expert in the field.

One of the reasons the story of eugenics is so compelling as a narrative -- rather than an academic history or polemic -- is the relentless ironies.  The nation's expert in forced sterilization would not only fail, like Galton, to have children of his own, his career would also sink when people discovered he was an epileptic, the type of person he had fought to sterilize, to wipe out from humankind.

Harry Laughlin, c. 1930

Part Two concludes showing how the American quest for racial purity influenced the Nazis.  Though the United States was the pioneer in the legal, administrative, and technical aspects of eugenic sterilization, Nazi Germany borrowed its ideas and applied them in an unprecedented way.  One of the first laws passed by the National Socialist government of Adolph Hitler was the "Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring," and its language and structure closely followed the work of Harry Laughlin.  In less than two years, over 150,000 German citizens were forced to undergo the procedure, preparing the way for the genocide to come. In 1936, when the German sterilization campaign was at its early height, the Nazi regime, through the auspices of Heidelberg University, awarded Laughlin an honorary doctorate for his many contributions to "racial hygiene."

Part Three begins with an analysis of the Nuremburg Trials.  Better for All the World shows how Allied prosecutors wrestled with the apparent moral nihilism of Darwin's theory of evolution, and the profound legal problem involved with prosecuting Nazi crimes without an established code of positive law.  The book shows how Nazi doctors were accused and convicted of "crimes against humanity" -- a concept Allied prosecutors themselves found dubious -- crimes based on the same theories of eugenics practiced in the United States for decades.

Allied counsel Thomas J. Dodd looks at the Shrunken Head of Buchenwald at the Nuremberg Trials. The image, used to illustrate the barbaric "patholocal phase" in Nazi culture, belied the Holocaust's careful scientific planning.

Following this analysis is the story of Lucille, a woman who was sterilized by the state of Colorado in 1942.  Lucille's story is tragic not only because her family gave up on her when she was a trouble-making child full of nervous energy, she was eventually forcibly sterilized by the state -- which had not, unlike 30 other U.S. states, passed a sterilization law.  "What they did to me was sexual murder," she said.  Like Carrie Buck, she lost her legal case against the state doctors who sterilized her against her will.  "I'm just like a female spayed animal. They made me half a woman. They took my heart and left a stone, you hear me?"

Lucille's story illustrates how far-ranging forced sterilization may have been in this country.  While 65,000 people were officially sterilized, Better for All the World illustrates in a concrete way how U.S. states without laws were sterilizing thousands more, and leaving them unrecorded.

Lucille's story also represents those of dozens of others who have filed lawsuits, and hundreds of victims of eugenics and forced sterilization have sought justice and compensation for their loss of dignity and their ability to bear children.  But every one of these has failed. Every lawsuit filed since World War II has failed, mostly because of the precedent set by Buck v. Bell, which to this day has never been reversed by the Supreme Court.  In recent years, however, the governors of Virginia, North Carolina, Oregon, and California have each issued official apologies for their states' programs of forced sterilization, humble acknowledgements to the dozens of victims still living today.  A few monuments have even been erected.  What is rarely discussed, however, is that these programs constituted nothing less than an American quest for racial purity.

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Better for All the World
By Harry Bruinius

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The Author

       Harry Bruinius   was born in Chicago and attended Yale University, where he studied theology, and Columbia University, where he studied journalism. He is a frequent contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, a professor of journalism at Hunter College, and the founder of The Village Quill. He lives in Manhattan.




Back Image

Burlesque dancer Sherry Britton reading a book on eugenics (Arthur Fellig Weegee, International Centre of Photography/Getty Images)

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"We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, 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. Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

- Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in the majority decision Buck v. Bell, 1927