Fresh Air’s Terry Gross interviews author Adam Cohen about his book Imbeciles, which tells the story of eugenics in the United States and how the Supreme Court upheld many laws which arose from that once influential pseudoscience. Among these laws were those which forced the sterilization and incarceration into ‘colonies’, of the ‘feebleminded’ and ‘unfit’. Cohen makes the story of Carrie Buck central to his discussion in this podcast and to the book. She was a young woman who suffered about as greatly as one could from these policies and was eventually betrayed even by the Supreme Court, supposed to be the last bastion against legislative and democratic excess.
It’s a shocking story, and as Cohen and Gross point out, it’s not discussed nearly often enough today. Not only did such laws and practices harm thousands of American citizens, they influenced the Nazis, who based many of their own policies and tactics on American eugenics programs.
Less directly but important nonetheless, the backlash against that old eugenicist-brand forced confinement of mentally ill, disabled, and so-called unfit helped garner support for the release of huge numbers of people from mental hospitals in the late 1900’s. Intentions may have been good in many circumstances, since overcrowding, understaffing, and ineffective modes of treatment were at times serious problems. However, deinstitutionalization did little to solve them; the problematic institutions were not replaced with sufficient or viable options for patients and their families to continue receiving the treatment and care they needed. To this day, thousands of mentally ill people are arrested every year, incarcerated, and treated, often against their will, in prisons and other correctional facilities instead of hospitals, and only after they’ve committed crimes, victimizing yet more innocent people. And these correctional facilities, like the mental hospitals they’ve ended up replacing, are often overcrowded and ill-equipped to deal with those who should be patients rather than inmates.
Why link this podcast discussion about the failures of eugenics to the modern movement to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill? Because it’s important to remember that since it’s not always clear what the full ramifications of an idea are, we need to look at them more carefully and critically, beyond the obvious, considering the long-term and indirect effects of its influence as well. In the example of eugenics, its failures were so egregious, its lack of regard for the humanity of those it declared ‘unfit’ so ugly, that it became too easy to undermine all sorts of other things, many of them good, simply by finding a way to link them together. In this case, as the same century that saw the rise of eugenics was drawing to a close, all institutionalization of mentally ill people, all requirements that certain people receive treatment, became painted with the same broad eugenicist brush. But here’s the thing with deinstitutionalization: it turns out that a similar lack of regard for the suffering humanity of the mentally ill had more to do with those policies than anything else. This seems clear when we observe that the public debate ended up being about funding more than anything else, and not nearly enough of the savings from shutting down institutions were redirected to help the people who continued to need it. The mentally ill were too often simply abandoned by the state to survive on their own or with the help of their un-equipped families, in a world unnavigable and inhospitable to them, and their plight remains largely unaddressed by legislatures.
This one example shows how lessons to be learned from Carrie Buck’s sad story and from the eugenicist movement, then, are much more far-reaching than just the obvious ‘look how it inspired the Nazis!’ The 20th century was too often characterized by an obsession with progress and economic growth at all cost; all things and persons not seen as contributors were dismissed as superfluous and a drain on the rest of society. Let’s make the 21st century one that values humanity for its own sake, and deem scientific progress, economic policies, and public institutions successful only if they serve and promote humanitarian values, not the other way around.
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Sources and inspiration
Frontline: The New Asylums May 2005 and The Released April 2009 (documentaries)
Lyons, Richard. ‘How Release of Mental Patients Began.’, New York Times, Oct. 30, 1984
‘The Supreme Court Ruling That Led To 70,000 Forced Sterilizations’, Fresh Air interview
Mar 7 2016. http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/03/07/469478098/the-supreme-court-ruling-that-led-to-70-000-forced-sterilizations