- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 15, 2006


By Harry Bruinius

Knopf, $30, 401 pages


Stephen King, meet your nonfiction counterpart. Some of the scariest things that one can read these days come straight from the history books, including this comprehensive look at the eugenics/racial purity movement.

Populated with characters from prominent American families and based on research from top-flight universities, the movement to mandate forced sterilization of those considered mentally inferior was a significant force in the United States during much of first half of the 20th century. It is a complicated story, but in the hands of Harry Bruinius, “Better for All The World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity” reads like an engaging, though eerie, novel.

Mr. Bruinius traces the movement from its intellectual origins in 19th- century Britain — where its founder was a cousin of Charles Darwin— to a woman still living in Colorado who was involuntarily sterilized while in a state mental institution.

Based on questionable scientific data, the movement caught on with Americans who who were worried that those of lesser intelligence would harm the nation’s gene pool by reproducing.

The book’s title comes from an opinion by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes upholding a Virginia law that mandated sterilization of those deemed intellectually and morally inferior.

“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,’ Mr. Holmes wrote in Buck vs. Bell in 1927.

Mr. Bruinius, a journalism professor at Hunter College in New York City, is clearly quite aghast at the movement (which also fueled racial quotas and other prejudicial acts) and its popularity. He goes to great lengths to explain the intellectual and social contexts in which it thrived. He cites the increase in immigrants and the changing dynamics that these newcomers created as helping fuel concerns among those from old Yankee stock. Worries about the financial and social costs to society in caring for the mentally challenged also caused some to favor forced sterilization.

Such ideas helped inspire many of the policies that were prevalent in Nazi Germany, including killing people who were not part of the “master race’ and the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped Jews of citizenship and outlawed marriage between the races.

In America, forced sterilizations were by no means a fringe movement. At one point, 30 states had forced sterilization laws and some others made use of the practice when deemed necessary for “medical reasons.’ Some prominent people, many of whom were notable progressives like Theodore Roosevelt and Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, endorsed the idea. Among its most prominent opponents were fundamentalist Christians and Roman Catholics.

The willingness of some people to believe in eugenics boggles the mind. Forgetting for a moment about the cruelty and immorality of the policy, it is also based on faulty science. There is no discernible evidence that persons with lower intelligence levels — however one wants to measure mental capacity — are more likely to produce children with similar characteristics.

The awful impact of these forced sterilizations is depicted in starkly human terms in Mr. Bruinius’ interview with a Denver woman, identified only as Lucille, who was involuntarily sterilized in a Colorado mental hospital in 1941 after scoring low on an intelligence test. She had been considered a problem child by her parents (Lucille was 17 at the time) and they signed off on the procedure:

“If I saw them now, I’d spit in their faces,’ she said of the doctors who performed the surgery. “What they did to me was sexual murder.’

When not providing chilling accounts like this, Mr. Bruinius’ narrative sometimes gets bogged down with arcana. His profiles of some of the scientific leaders of the movement are longer than they need to be, and he occasionally spends too much time on the offspring of these leaders.

Moreover, his writing style, though elegant, can be at times a bit hyperbolic: “The quest to build a better civilization, to battle social ills and human suffering, is in many ways the great epic of the modern world, a story in which men and women, armed with weapons forged by the great god of Science, throw off the superstitions of the past, and enter a new kind of fray,’ he writes.

Despite these minor flaws, “Better for All The World” is a valuable and account of this important and sorry period of American history.

Claude R. Marx writes a political column for The Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass. He is the author of a chapter on the presidential campaign of Howard Dean that appears in the recently published book: “The Divided States of America.’

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