Allegations of forced sterilizations of women in ICE custody triggered a firestorm mid-September, according to a LA Times story. No less than 19 women at the Georgia immigration facility allege that the center’s gynecologist Dr. Mahendra Amin pressured them to submit to “overly aggressive” or “medically unnecessary” operations without their consent, including surgeries that alter their ability to bear children, according to an October report authored by nine board-certified OB-GYNs and nursing experts. The overwhelming majority of the immigrant women volunteering evidence of crimes are Black or brown. The whistleblower report alleges that most of the women were Spanish speaking and that nurses were using Google Translate to communicate with them about procedures, raising questions about proper informed consent. The Los Angeles Times quotes Wendy Dowe, deported to Jamaica earlier this year after more than 20 years in the US, saying: “They treat you like you’re not human…Because I’m an immigrant, and I’m Black, that’s why this happened,” Dowe said. Adding but, “No, I am not giving up. I still have hope that I will get some form of justice” (See also this news article).
This is as much a story about the conditions that create the possibility for this violence as about a single doctor. As if on cue, in late September the 45th President of the United States came forward to foreground and endorse the violent eugenics logic that undergirds racist immigration policy. His “good genes” compliment at a campaign rally shows how “genes” based discourse emergent from junk “race science” still signifies racial superiority of certain European immigrants. This is not about a specific administration that is on its way out, either. The reports from women in ICE custody are not the first recent allegations – a new documentary unveils forced sterilization in CA women’s prisons from 2010-2016. The allegations from the immigration detention center and women’s prisons as well as the President’s vile rhetoric probe us to rethink eugenics at a time when many people considered the ideology an outdated fixture of the 1920s. I looked into the forgotten legacy of the 20th century Supreme Court sterilization case that was never overturned and the violent eugenics logic that prevails in our colonial, sexist immigration policies, discourses, and profit-hungry institutions literally devouring bodies and future lives. I was shocked to learn that the eugenics logic expressed in the white supremacist racialized caste system developed in the US provided the blueprint for the Holocaust and transformed US immigration policy beginning in 1924. The same homegrown logic at work in the repeated rejection of the application for asylum of the Anne Frank family is at work in our immigration system today. If eugenics informed immigration policy is a condition for the possibility of Frank’s death and ongoing violence, then Christians are implicated in both. Most Christians provided enthusiastic support for the racist, colonial, and sexist programs that engrained eugenics logic in US culture and institutions. As a Christian theologian, I think that Christian-affiliated people who want to heed and hear voices like Dowe’s and seek justice with victim-survivors (to use a neologism coined by Traci West) like her need to contend with these histories of support for racist, colonial, and sexist policies and programs. This blog post is an expression of my effort to do that. These histories are laid bare by Adam Cohen in his book Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck and Rosen in Preaching Eugenics.
Eugenics movement background
The eugenics movement advocated for the idea that science can be used to uplift the human race by wisely choosing which genes it will reproduce. It was intellectually committed to the notion that selective breeding would make the United States of America better through protecting its genepool (Rosen, 5). This ideology passed for science.
British scientist Francis Galton, cousin of Darwin, coined the term “eugenics.” (The etymology traces back to the Greek meaning “better in birth.”) According to Galton, evolution was a “grand phantasmagoria,” a tumultuous performance without purpose, driven on by natural selection (Rosen, 5). Eugenics promised to place the reigns of this chaotic process in human hands by promoting the reproduction of only the fittest human specimens.
The eugenics logic found fertile soil among US born, White, middle class Protestants in the United States in the early 20th century. That was a period of rapid, enormous change for them. As the nation shifted from predominantly rural to urban and industrial, unprecedented numbers of immigrants arrived, revising the religious, cultural, and racial composition in which they felt secure (Cohen, 55). Historian Richard Hofstadter writes that these White Protestants interpreted this social churning as a “crisis” demanding a “response” (Cohen, 55), so they sought “a counter to these movements that threatened to transform American society in more fundamental ways” (Cohen, 55). Eugenics fit right into their efforts to build a nation in their own image in “the Age of Reform.” With their neocolonial reasoning, these reformers perhaps figured they could do nothing about the massive sociological shifts, urbanization, or bustling immigrant neighborhoods that were changing the country’s religious and cultural landscape, but they believed that the tools of “science” could confront and purify society of key scourges (Cohen, 55). Meanwhile, Roosevelt-era language of “race suicide” was invoked to compel white women to have more children (Tazkargy, 2014, 144).
Eugenics programs and policies: colonies, sterilization, and immigration restrictions
These reformers called for policies that prohibited actions that would result in corrosion of the gene pool. They created colonies for “idiots” and the “feebleminded” (terms of art in this era [Cohen, 53]) and they advocated for measures that allowed some humans to control other humans’ reproduction. State sterilization laws targeting men and women whose “germ plasm” was a perceived menace to the nation’s welfare were one result (Rosen, 5, 94). In addition, they led the charge to restrict immigration from countries whose citizens would contaminate the US melting pot (Rosen, 97-100).
In the 1900s, my current home state of Indiana passed the first eugenics sterilization law. This gave state government the power to regulate reproduction of some men and women. Indiana and other state statutes relied on categories of the feeblemindedness, indolence, and the unemployed, among others.
The sterilization trial of the century
The 1920s case Buck vs Bell is what some call the “sterilization trial of the century.” Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes infamously said, “three generations of imbeciles was enough” as he upheld the Virginia sterilization law that came before the court. “Buck” in this case is Carrie Buck, daughter of Emma Buck who had fallen on hard times (Cohen, 15). According to Carrie, a nephew of the foster family that took her in (where she lived more as a housemaid than a daughter) “forced himself on me” (Cohen, 24). According to her testimony, the child she carried outside of marriage was not a result of her being “untrustworthy” as the foster family claimed but rather rape. Carrie would humiliate the family by having a child outside of marriage and charging the nephew with rape. That there was one way to prevent this, Cohen writes, send her away quickly and permanently (Cohen, 25). Holme’s opinion was concise and disturbing: “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. Three generations of imbeciles are enough” (Cohen, 44).
So even though she performed well in school—her last teacher noted “very good—deportment and lessons” (Cohen, 21)—the dominant narrative about Carrie’s life made her a poster child for institutionalization as a feebleminded epileptic fit for eugenic sterilization. Following the Supreme Court decision, she is sent to an asylum, where her mother is already. She is then sterilized, which was within the police power of the state.
The Supreme Court was not just upholding sterilization law with its 8:1 vote in Buck v Bell but also the logic of the eugenics movement underlying it. Cohen identifies other policy expressions of the ideology. The same day Virginia enacts its sterilization law, it passes the racial integrity act of 1924. The law prohibits sexual relations between races according to the “one drop” rule, which maintained that any nonwhite lineage made one nonwhite. Southern eugenicists thought that policing race boundaries would prevent black people from polluting the superior white race. The eugenics law sought to make the white race more elite by protecting this racial construct from “poor white trash” (Cohen, 58-59; It was struck down in Loving vs Virginia, 1967).
In the same year that Virginia passes the law that authorizes the sterilization of the “feebleminded,” Congress passes the Immigration act of 1924 that sets limits on the entry to the United States of individuals from certain parts of the world. As one congressional representative put it, the new legal formulation would assist the nation to remain “the home of a great people: English-speaking—a white race with great ideals, the Christian religion, one race, one country, one destiny” (Cohen, 134). Representative Johnson hailed the watershed victory for the eugenics movement “America’s Second Declaration of Independence.” Madison Grant seemed to agree, declaring that the United States had “closed the doors just in time to prevent our Nordic population being overrun by the lower races” (Cohen, 135). In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler sang its praises for imposing reason through “simply excluding certain races from naturalization” (Cohen, 135).
The immigration law profoundly transformed the landscape of immigration demographics. Immigrants from north and western Europe, namely England and Germany, rocketed. Meanwhile, the numbers of southern and eastern Europeans and Jewish immigration plummeted.
United States eugenics movements link this country to the extermination of Jews in Nazi Germany in two ways. It taught Nazism about the model of eugenics it forged, which the Nazis employed to horrendous effect. After Hitler celebrated the Immigration Law of 1924, the Nazis went on to model the racist, anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws of September 1935 after it. In addition, US racist, anti-semitic immigration laws rebuffed Jews seeking to escape the violence and genocide seizing Europe. For example, Frank Otto repeatedly applied for a visa to bring his family to the United States and was repeatedly denied. Anne Frank died in a concentration camp because Nazis believed that Jews were racially inferior and because the US Congress thought that Jews were racially inferior (Cohen, 135).
Christian support for eugenics
According to Rosen, eugenic thought flourished in the liberal Protestant mainstream. Supportive church leaders generally did not develop a clear theological vision in support of eugenics but rather embraced the arguments and logic genetic determination and then adjusted their Christian language as an afterthought (Rosen, 5). Christians’ enthusiastic endorsement translated into vital support for the ostensibly “progressive” movement. They wrote books, infused charity programs with eugenics thought, supported eugenics solutions to social programs, and advocated for eugenics legislation.
Mennonite involvement contradicts what many understand about the historically pacifist church tradition to which I belong. The leading Mennonite relief and development organization, Mennonite Central Committee, aided Russian Mennonite presented as fleeing Nazism. Yet according to historical research, some of those rescued had participated in crimes of National Socialism in the 1930s and 1940s and then went on to contribute anti-Semitic ideas to the intellectual life of Mennonite communities in the US and Canada. According to historian Benjamin Goossen, some German Anabaptist voices argued that Mennonites did not just embrace but “anticipated and perfected” eugenics before Hitler came to power. For Mennonite genealogist in Nazi Germany, Kurt Kauenhowen, Mennonites’ long history of internal marriage allowed “race science to fall on especially fertile ground in our demographic circles.” Writing in February 1943, the height of Nazi atrocities and systematized killing of European Jews, he explained: “the marriage regulations and the relatively long isolation of our demographic group induced us at an early date to engage questions of eugenics” (“From Aryanism to Anabaptism…,” 141). He was not theorizing only about German Mennonite but rather about Mennonite “blood purity” worldwide, reasoning that few other groups had “spread across so many areas of settlement in the Old and New World”…all the while preserving “such prodigious purity of race and loyalty to the hereditary transmission of blood.” Research findings from Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics (Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für Anthropologie, menschliche Erblehre und Eugenik) and Kiel Anthropological Institute (Kieler Anthropologische Institut) supported his claims: researchers discovered a 98% “hereditary quotient” among Siberian and other Soviet Union Mennonite refugees (141-142).
A few communities vocally resisted the eugenics movements. Catholics who rejected evolutionary theory opposed artificial contraception and eugenic sterilization laws to become the eugenics movement’s most fervent opponents (Sharon Leon, An Image of God). Rosen finds that according to most Catholics, eugenicist movement violated natural by intervening in the sacrament of marriage, the sanctity of procreation and human life, and the family (139). A Thomistic emphasis on the dignity of the individual was the starting point and instruction for their engagement in the contemporary societal challenges and debates (140-141). For example, the archbishop of Milwaukee in 1913 condemned sterilization as “an interference with personal independence and individual liberty” (39). Following Catholics in their rejection of sterilization were fundamentalist Christians who closely adhered to specific traditions, doctrine, and biblical infallibility (Rosen 5, 116, 122, 145). As far as I can tell, a distinctively Catholic perspective of the individual based on natural law that condemned sterilization did not lead to equally vigorous opposition to immigration or institutionalization programs. The fundamentalist groups were likewise weak in the rejection of other programs and policies as well as the underlying ideology concerning hereditary explanations for social ills they expressed.
Condemnations of Amin’s alleged medical abuse in immigration detention frequently focus on the violation of individual rights inherent in such procedures. I hope to have shown that the stories of procedures performed on Black and brown women without full or informed consent is as much as story about the conditions that create the possibility for this violence as about Amin, conditions that are the possibility of Trump’s compliments of his base’s “good genes.” This is a story about the racist ideology that has fundamentally shaped the landscape of contemporary US immigration policies. It is a story about the ideological models that enabled the ascent of Nazi racist ideology and the US policies that denied escape and contributed to the successful extermination of European Jews. It is about understanding the through lines to our cruel immigration policies today (Never Again, is the response of Jews around the United States). That means that it is also a story about the Christian communities that justified and promoted the eugenics programs and legal decisions that bring us to the present. An understanding of these histories particularly the ethical, ethnicity, legal, and theological debates—is necessary for political theologians, ethicists, and activists as we confront the current age of anti-immigrant xenophobia, racism, for profit prisons, and appeals to “good genes.” This is especially true now that we know our flailing democracy does not “bar the door to a eugenics’ return” as historians of eugenics assumed democracy would (Rosen, 188).
Acknowledgement: The author thanks Jenae Longenecker for her shared interest in this topic and comments on this essay.
Adam Cohen, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck (New York: Penguin Press, 2016).
Benjamin Goossen, “From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity,” in Mennonite Quarterly Review, 90 (April 2016): 135-163.
Sharon Leon, An Image of God: The Catholic Struggle with Eugenics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
Christine Rosen, Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
Ariel S. Tazkargy, “From Coercion to Coercion: Voluntary Sterilization Policies in the United States,” Law and Inequality: A Journal of Theory and Practice 32, no. 1 (2014): 135–68.
Traci West, Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality: Africana Lessons on Religion, Racism, and Ending Gender Violence (New York: New York University Press: 2019).