Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America's Quest for Racial Purity

In this book, Harry Bruinius examines the very secretive account of eugenics in the United States and beyond. He charts this movement that started in the early 20th century and led to the forced sterilization of more than 200.000 individuals. The author narrates the stories of two women (Carrie Buck and Emma) wallowing in poverty yet subjected to a purity racial scientific quest. This would culminate in the Buck vs. Bell case that was presented before the Supreme Court. This Court voted 8 - 1to essentially make sterilization legal and constitutional. This vote, thus, paved the way for the state to block any person who is presumed “unfit” from getting children of his own. The majority opinion of the Supreme Court was noted down by Oliver Wendell Holmes.

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Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., feared the United States would be “swamped with incompetence” if women like Carrie continued to have children. “It is better for all the world,” he wrote in the majority decision of Buck v. Bell, “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” (pg. 3).

During this time, the eugenicists were arguing that the human race had no option but to control both the human reproduction and ethnic intermingling. Therefore, by using objective and natural scientific methods, these eugenicists hoped that only the biologically and genetically best of all the human races would be bred. This simply means that the breeding of the worst had to be prevented. The consequences of the vote were far-reaching. They are anti-miscegenation, marriage restriction and passing the necessary immigration laws.

The author examines how the reformers all over the United States altered the haphazard and mostly locally administered systems of welfare and charity (such as town asylums and church handouts) into state administered programs of welfare that had the intention of making the country a place where purity – both morally and socially – could prevail, separated from the ancient “hereditary defectives”. These programs received support from some very famous individuals such as Theodore Roosevelt, Alexander Braham Bell and Margaret Sanger as well as leaders of Rockefeller Foundation, Carnegie, Harriman and scholars from the prestigious universities Stamford, Yale and Harvard. Winston Churchill once wrote to his Prime Minister that “I feel that the source from which all the streams of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before the year has passed. . . . [A] simple surgical operation would allow these individuals to live in the world without causing much inconvenience to others.” Bruinius also writes that most of the eugenic movement leaders were mostly Protestants (from New England). As a result, they used a deceptively evangelical tone that made reference to their Puritan ancestors who had earlier made no secret of their endeavor to keep and preserve the purity of the “American stock”. They could do it by excising the root of morally unaccepted behavior.

The author draws on diaries, secret documents and personal letters to describe the three scientists credited with developing not only the theories but also the practices of eugenics. Francis Galton is credited with coining the term “eugenics” that will mean “the science of better breeding”. Incidentally, Galton was a cousin to evolution guru Charles Darwin. Charles Davenport is reputed to be the first prominent eugenic thinker in the country. Davenport was a professor at both universities of Harvard and Chicago. In addition, he has a direct lineage to Reverend John Davenport who was the original founder of New Haven. The third scientist was Harry Laughlin. Laughlin was perhaps America’s most prominent eugenic sterilization expert. In addition, he was also a leading figure in efforts to prevent a sporadic immigration into the country.

The Eugenics Movement

The founding figure of eugenics was Sir Francis Galton (a Briton) who was a cousin to evolution founder Charles Darwin. It is believed that Galton was specifically inspired by his cousin’s work “Origin of Species”. Galton always argued that superior people – just like superior farm animals and plants – were as a result of good breeding. This simply implied that according to him, intelligence was actually an inherited trait. That is, an intelligent person will reproduce an intelligent person and vice versa. Armed with this belief, Galton coined the term ‘eugenics’ (derived from Greek’s word that means ‘well born’) to define “the science of good breeding”. He promoted his ideas with the argument that only the brightest and the best of the human race should have children. On the contrary, those with mental deficiencies or those afflicted with diseases should not. It is very ironical that Galton himself periodically suffered from bouts of nervous breakdowns and could not have children of his own.

Although Francis Galton only developed the theoretical aspects of eugenics, his works were seriously picked up by Charles Davenport who established a national eugenic policy planning and research center: the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Davenport sought the services of Harry Laughlin to advance his ideas. With the help of fieldworkers, the two embarked on identifying “germ-plasm” of perceived unfit genetic strains for eradication. Laughlin would later become a leading figure in spearheading compulsory sterilization. He also helped in passing an immigration law that prevented “inferior” persons (coming from Eastern and Southern Europe) from entering the United States. The eugenics movement in America was mostly concerned with preventing unfit persons from having children. This policy was taken up by other countries and allowed “doctors to operate on otherwise healthy citizens against their will.” After some time, many eugenics supporters started to argue that whites were superior to non-whites and were, thus, genetically stronger.

Harry Laughlin and Charles Davenport

Charles Davenport was a Biology scholar (professor) who was also an enthusiast of natural science. In addition, he was also a keen follower of Francis Galton’s works. In 1904, Davenport established perhaps the first national eugenics research center that doubled up as a policy planning center. As a result, he has often been credited with being the first most prominent eugenic movement figure and thinker in the United States. Charles Davenport was directly related to Reverend John Davenport who had played a leading role in the founding of a city at New Haven in the early 17th century. In 1907, Charles established the Eugenics Records Office that could identify supposedly ‘unfit’ family strains that had to be eliminated. It underlined his stance that unfit persons should be sterilized and only genetically stronger persons should be allowed to reproduce. Despite this stance, however, Davenport’s condition could not be considered “genetically strong” (according to his works that is). This is because he himself suffered from periodic nervous breakdowns and his son died of polio. His own two daughters could not reproduce. All these imply that, according to his sponsored eugenic beliefs, he should have been sterilized. It was very ironic for such a man to condemn “unfit” persons.

On his part, Harry Laughlin was a Missouri high school teacher. Just like Davenport, Laughlin had a religious background. To advance his mission, Davenport chose Laughlin as his protégé. Laughlin was in the forefront of identifying the unfit family strains due for elimination and sterilization. He was soon to become the most prominent leader of the sterilization policy in the United States. He also played an important role in the formulation of preventive immigration laws. Just like his master, Laughlin was not “genetically strong.” In fact, his fall from grace was complete when it was discovered that he was epileptic. In the end, he could not have children of his own.

Americans and Eugenics

Although the founder of eugenics was British, Americans were perhaps the first to truly embrace and practice it. According to the author, this reception was a reflection of the country’s utopianism. He writes that “Seeing their country as a land of innocence, many Americans had long clung to the idea of self-purification, attempting to excise that which posed a danger to the social good.” It simply meant that, in their view, sterilizing of unfit persons was not bad after all. The author writes that “Eugenics would combine an American self-consciousness with the new and unimpeachable authority of Science.” It made them relatively receptive of this notion.

The author makes it clear that America was “the pioneer in state forced sterilization in the whole world. …” In the next two decades, the United States became the pioneer in state-sanctioned programs to rid society of the ‘unfit. However, some countries in Europe tried to copy the American eugenic model of sterilization. He says that “the American technique of social engineering became the model for laws in Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, and Sweden.” As the paper had already mentioned, Hitler’s Germany took up the sterilization too far. While about 65000 Americans were sterilized in total, more than 150.000 Germans were sterilized under Hitler. All these demonstrate the fact that America’s model of identifying mentally ill persons, epileptics or supposedly ‘unfit’ persons and forcefully sterilizing them was taken up by these countries as well.

The eugenic policy of sterilization was supported by some very influential persons. However, the most influential supporters were the Supreme Court judges led by Wendell Holmes. Some of the most prominent supporters were Theodore Roosevelt, Victoria Woodhull, Margaret Sanger, Alexander Graham Bell, heads of Rockefellers, Harriman and Carnegie as well as some Harvard, Yale and Stanford scholars. An excerpt of Roosevelt’s letter to Charles Davenport reads: “Someday we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty, of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.” Eugenics also found support from Winston Churchill. These people used their power to advance their beliefs to the public. Churchill even tried to use his position to convince the British Prime Minister to accept sterilization.

The Interaction between the Eugenics Movement and Law

To advance their ideas, the eugenicists always sought the support of the state and law. For instance, although Dr. Bell had performed sterilization procedures before he took exception of Carrie and wanted to perform the operation legally. In fact, the mere realization that the test case was called Buck v. Bell suggested that he had personally sought the courts to back his assertions that “morons” such as Carrie had to be sterilized forcefully. “But for Dr. Bell, this operation was far more than a legal victory. As a “test case,” it had been a carefully orchestrated lawsuit meant not only to sterilize Carrie against her will, but also to protect a bold but controversial social policy he believed would improve the welfare of the nation.” Dr. Bell was very happy when the Supreme Court declared that it was constitutionally valid for the state to forcefully sterilize persons deemed unfit. It illustrates the fact that the eugenics movement always wanted to be backed up by the law so that they could carry out their procedures without any fear.

Harry Laughlin was the leading figure of this movement. As a result, he played a prominent role in establishing the 1924 Immigration Act. In this Act, Laughlin ensured that “inferior” persons from Eastern or Southern Europe be barred from entering the US. The eugenicists had ensured that their beliefs were protected by the law. Another case where the eugenics movement interacted with the law was when Nazi Germany passed the “Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring.” This law was Laughlin and eugenics inspired. The irony of these laws was witnessed during the Nuremberg Trials. The prosecutors were very uncertain about the whole process since the doctors had performed procedures that had been applied for a long time in the United States. However, the doctors were still convicted of crimes against humanity. It suggests that although the eugenicists tried to pass laws to support their stance, their actions contravened popular human rights laws.

Opponents of Eugenics Movement

The eugenic movement had been in full force during the early 20th century in the country. Despite receiving support from public figures and scholars alike, there were some influential figures who were not convinced by this whole concept. This is because the scientific foundation by which the eugenics movement was based upon was very weak. One of the leading opponents was Walter Lippmann who published a series of exploratory and challenging articles in the New Republic in 1922. Lippmann disputed the notion that human intelligence could be measured accurately (something the eugenicists thrived on). According to him, classifying people as idiots, imbeciles and morons could not be substantiated. “Intelligence is not an abstraction like length and width; it is an exceedingly complicated notion which nobody has as yet succeeded in defining.” Carl Campbell Brigham, who had once supported a eugenics movement, also started to question the accuracy of measuring intelligence. He argued that such practices of measuring intelligence were flawed. It demonstrated the fact that the movement was losing some of its supporters.

How Negative and Positive Eugenics were Implemented

First and foremost, this paper believes that the whole sterilization and eugenics are flawed. Therefore, there was no positive implementation whatsoever. Eugenics was implemented in two main stages; testing and sterilization.

Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin maintained the Eugenics Records Office and other related documents. These two leading figures conducted studies where they would identify unfit strains (germ-plasm) so that they could be eradicated. It simply means that persons having these unfit strains were due for sterilization. Since there were many scholars that supported the eugenics movement in the early periods, some mental capacity tests were formulated. These tests could be used to “measure” intelligence. Therefore, those individuals that were measured and categorized as idiots, imbeciles or morons were sterilized. It was to prevent them from giving birth to predetermined babies having these unwanted mental capacities. There is nothing positive in this practice.

How the American Eugenics Influenced Europe

The country’s pursuit for racial purity had an international influence, especially in the Nazi Germany. For instance, its Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring law was copied directly from Laughlin’s Model Law and California’s Human Betterment Foundation. After this law was passed, about 150.000 Germans were sterilized in just less than two years. It was perhaps the catalyst for the genocide that was to come. Laughlin was even awarded an honorary doctorate for his “racial hygiene” efforts by the Nazi regime. To cap it off, the prosecutors of the Nuremberg Trials were uncertain whether or not the Nazi doctors could be convicted of “crimes against humanity.” This is because these doctors acted according to the eugenics theories that had been applied for many years in the US.

Other countries that followed the American sterilization policy were Denmark, Sweden, France and Finland. Winston Churchill also supported state led forced sterilization although it is unclear if the British authorities actually implemented the procedure.

How Eugenics Became Less Popular

As time went by, many Americans started to wonder how the mental capacity of a person that has not yet been born could be measured. A future offspring’s mental capacity cannot be accurately measured by mere tests; it was almost impossible. Even the most sophisticated scientific procedure could not do it. Therefore, many scholars began to argue that the sterilization tests were simply based on ideology rather than science itself. There were also some proclamations of eugenicists that actually frightened ordinary Americans. For instance, many people were shocked when John Kellog once said that “We are … building up an aristocracy of lunatics, idiots, paupers, and criminals.” He had also suggested that each and every American should be subjected to an annual health test that would determine whether he/she will be sterilized or not. The next day, the Hearst papers menacingly warned that “14 Million to Be Sterilized.” It made many people to turn away from the whole concept. Therefore, with each passing day, the movement lost more and more supporters.

Under the watch of Harry Laughlin, the Eugenics Records Office had been charged with documenting all perceived unfit family strains that have to be sterilized. However, there were accusations that these records were very much flawed. In 1935, a special committee published a report that critically challenged the records. By then, it was clear that some entries had been manipulated. One of the complaints was that some of the records were noted down after a shoddy research had been conducted. In addition, Laughlin was himself epileptic yet it had never been reflected in the records. In 1939, the Eugenics Records Office was shut down due to malpractices and Laughlin’s hypocrisy. It simply meant that the whole eugenic process had been discredited. It made the process less popular amongst the public. However, the whole concept of eugenics was criticized following the Holocaust. The immigration laws had prevented the Jews from entering the country. As a result, millions of people died since they could not escape from Hitler. It made a lot of people to discredit this policy.

Personal Opinion

The human rights clearly proclaim that everyone has a right to exist, reproduce and do whatever he wishes as long as it does not hurt anyone. This freedom should be granted even if one is mentally ill or epileptic. Therefore, denying individuals to produce an offspring was simply immoral. I believe that the eugenics era was one of the darkest periods in America’s history. This is certainly the feeling of my friends and people around me. Sterilizing a person so that he/she should not bring forth a baby with a similar mental capacity is not only immoral but very faulty. An intelligent person will not necessarily produce an intelligent baby. There are many cases where healthy and intelligent babies have been born by the persons whom the eugenicists could call ‘unfit’.

Some of the popular websites that talk about are,, and The most prominent characteristic about these and related websites is that they criminalize the whole concept. The use of eugenics on humans is simply immoral, uncalled for and should have never been practiced. This simply means that all high school students have to be taught about the dangers of believing that intelligence is inherited. For instance, a student whose parents were not that good academically may come to believe that they cannot succeed academically. It may discourage them and make them perform poorly. Students should be encouraged that intelligence has nothing to do with inheritance and that everyone has an equal opportunity of performing academically well.

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