Down here in Virginia the finer citizens are toasting Governor Mark Warner, who has stepped forward to apologize for the state’s former policy of sterilizing the “unfit.” The governor issued the apology on the 75th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision (that’s the U.S. Supreme Court) that backed the state’s eugenics program — a program, as the Associated Press points out, that was a model for similar policies in 30 other states.
There are those, to be sure, who will chide Warner for what they consider to be a particularly crude case of moral streaking. Coming out against forced sterilization, at first blush as least, seems to be a safe gambit, much like coming out against slavery and against the practice of burning witches at the stake. It is also true that Warner is an easy target. He rode to victory on a torrent of his own money. In these parts, purchasing an office is a practice still associated with carpetbaggers.
Yet charges of cynicism and cheap moral posturing are somewhat off base. The fact is, if one could put this eugenics policy to a vote, there’s a good chance that much of it would gain wide support. That’s not only in Virginia, but across the nation.
Let’s consider some the main points of the sterilization program, which was in operation from 1924 to 1979 and which rendered some 7,450 people unable to reproduce (all told, some 60,000 U.S. citizens were sterilized). As the AP explained: “The law targeted virtually any human shortcoming that was believed to be hereditary, including mental illness, mental retardation, epilepsy, alcoholism and criminal behavior. Even people deemed to be ‘ne’er-do-wells’ were sometimes targeted.” In one instance a fellow named Raymond W. Hudlow was forcibly sterilized — because he was a runaway.
The first thing one notes is how sparingly the policy was implemented. To suggest that between the years 1924 and 1979, only 7,450 Virginians qualified under these guidelines is of course ridiculous. Many millions of potential victims slipped through the cracks.
Indeed, tens of millions could have been snipped if the “ne’er-do-well” category were fully exploited. Many people, after all, consider a mere slacker or perpetual porch-sitter to be a ne’er-do-well. Many, if not most, high school students fall into that category, as do a sizable number of college students and almost all their professors. Anyone with their name on the welfare roles, or who checked in to a 12-step program, might also go under the knife.
And there seems little doubt that many citizens would not be appalled, and indeed would likely applaud, a policy that terminated the bloodlines of the mentally ill, retarded, and criminal (drunks might be spared, since so many homes include one). We are, after all, living in a world that is quite receptive to eugenics of other types. As Joycelyn Elders once famously crowed, most children with Down syndrome are now snuffed in the womb. Other types of unwanted pregnancies are aborted by the tens of millions. In that spirit, Gov. Warner recently stood against legislation that would ban partial-birth abortion, clearly a form of infanticide.
Elsewhere, the attempt to weed out genetic disorders proceeds. To most people that is a laudable mission — science at its best. Perhaps one day the only time humans will see a drunk, kleptomaniac, or someone with crossed eyes or webbed toes will be in a museum or picture book. It is also hoped that eugenics will help weed out various causes of mental instability, thus breaking the cycle that is passed through generations and causes such misery.
The other side of the coin, to be sure, is that there’s a good chance of abuse. By locking certain popular traits into the species, humanity might become frightfully homogenous. We could, theoretically at least, morph into pretty much the same person. This will be good news to the people who like to go about saying “we are one!” For others of us, however, the picture is a great deal grimmer. The only way our descendants might meet someone interesting, or at least different, will be if aliens arrive from outer space.
Meantime, hail Warner. The governor is clearly a creature of his age, and probably would have embraced the sterilization program at its inception, just as he embraces our more modern forms of eugenics. At the same time, his posturing wasn’t as cheap as it might initially appear, and might even put him at some danger should his car break down in certain neighborhoods. Then again, it probably won’t hurt him a bit in the darker hollows, where some families have undertaken several generations of inbreeding to achieve their perfectly pointed heads, despite the threat of government intervention.