Paul A. Lombardo, author of Three Generations No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell, is the Bobby Lee Cook Professor of Law at Georgia State University. Three Generations earned Lombardo recognition at the 2009 Library of Virginia Literary Awards and acknowledgment as the 2009 Georgia Author of the Year. In light of the comprehensive history of eugenics presented by Lombardo in Three Generations, these awards are well deserved. Particular attention is paid to the legal and political history of eugenics with, as the title indicates, emphasis placed on Buck v. Bell. This text serves as an important reminder that involuntary sterilization is still legal in at least one state and that Buck v. Bell has never been overturned.
This book is suitable for any audience interested in the history of the eugenics movement in the United States. Even for those with an established knowledge of Buck v. Bell there is much to be taken from this book. An extensive history of the eugenics movement prior to Buck v. Bell is given which details the political climate that eventually results in the creation of the involuntary sterilization law in Virginia. Lombardo chronicles the establishment and activities of the Eugenic Records Office (ERO). The ERO was one of the first organizations created to garner support for involuntary sterilization, among other things, and the true goal of that unit is revealed by Lombardo. Involuntary sterilization was seen as an act to benefit society. By ridding of communities of those who were an economic drain, namely those in institutions, we would create a stronger society. Lombardo supports this thesis with a wealth of historical information. One of the most alarming quotes which Lombardo provides is from Harry Laughlin, of the ERO which illustrates Laughlin's goal that sterilization should focus on females:
As a rule the tax on the female dog is two or three time greater than that on a male dog. Such difference in taxation is not made because of a difference in individual menace, but rather because of a more direct responsibility for reproduction. The females of such homeless strains are not protected, and consequently the increase very rapidly. Consorting freely with equally worthless mates, their progeny are often excessive in numbers, and of a worthless, mongrel sort. The castration of one-half of the mongrel male dogs would not effect a substantial reduction in the number of mongrel pups born.
The unprotected females of the socially unfit classes bear, in human society, a place comparable to that of the females of mongrel strains of domestic animals.
Perhaps more troubling than the abhorrent quotes, such as the one above, are the people identified by Lombardo as affiliated with the eugenics movement. Alexander Graham Bell was a chairman of the ERO board of directors and was joined by many prominent academics on this board, for example, Yale economist Irving Fisher and William H. Welch, dean of the School of Medicine at Johns Hopkins. Lombardo's book does an excellent job of showing just how prevalent support for the eugenics movement was. A quote from a letter written by Teddy Roosevelt reads "society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind."
One of the main theses of this book is the contention that the scientific knowledge of the day was ignored by politicians and lawmakers alike. Policy and legislation moved forward asserting that things like promiscuity, feeblemindedness and criminality were inherited traits and, thus, people who exhibited those traits should be sterilized so they would not create more individuals with those traits. Lombardo contends, correctly, that the scientific evidence of the day did not agree with these contentions. He asserts that such policymakers effectively ignored the scientific evidence that was available and contradicted the claim that these abhorred traits were genetically heritable. If there is one weakness in this book it is the lack of explanation for the claim that such scientific evidence was readily available. Some studies are mentioned but, even today, with advancements in technology and science the exact genetic vs. environmental composition of such complex traits as IQ are unknown. It may be somewhat unfair to charge the proponents of eugenics with ignoring accepted scientific evidence at the time. Regardless, Lombardo makes it poignantly clear that even if such evidence were available the politicians supporting eugenics and involuntary sterilization, with their unique political agendas, would probably have ignored it and forged ahead with their eugenic policy.
It is clear throughout this text that Lombardo believes that revisiting Buck v. Bell is a worthwhile endeavor. Indeed, in the epilogue he is quick to point out that this Supreme Court legislation has not been overturned.
© 2012 Susan L. Smith
Susan L. Smith is a post-doctoral associate in the Department of Philosophy at the University at Buffalo.