Eugenics is by standard definition the planned development of a superior human “stock” by selective breeding.  Nine decades ago this year, and for forty years before that, there were, in the English speaking world, many ardent and intellectually sophisticated advocates of compulsory eugenics. Many states in the U.S. enacted programs to limit the reproduction of individuals deemed to be of inferior genetic stock, by for example sterilizing the “imbeciles.”

The notorious U.S. Supreme Court decision Buck v. Bell (1927) upheld Virginia’s forced sterilization program against a due process challenge, and it gave Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes a chance to get gnomic, “three generations of imbeciles are enough,” he wrote.

The close connection between Nazism and eugenics sent the latter into disrepute in the ‘40s.

Now, more than 70 years after the end of the Second World War, there is news from Tennessee of what may fairly be termed a eugenics program.  Judge Sam Benningfield of White County has created by judicial order a program whereby inmates who agree to vasectomies (or, in the case of women, who agree to the implantation of an abortifacient) will receive 30 days off their sentences.

Left Wing View

Eugenics (the last time around) was part of what was broadly called “progressivism,” the late 19th and early 20th century notion that society ought to be subject to rational, indeed scientific, central control. Progressivism gave the United States the federal income tax, the Federal Reserve, minimum wage laws, and the preservation of wildness via a system of National Parks.  All of this represented the optimism of the educated and ruling class of the day about how a wise government can serve the good of the public. Each of those four items (and others that might be mentioned) was part of an agenda claimed today as a heritage by the political left.

But in the 21st century, some writers on the left have come to see that they have to jettison some of the baggage of their heritage, because in the progressive era reforms today considered repugnant were thoroughly mixed up with those now regarded as sensible or appealing. “[E]ven worker-friendly reforms like the minimum wage were part of a racial hygiene agenda,” as Malcolm Harris put it in The New Republic a year and a half ago. Racial hygiene simply took its most direct form in the eugenics movement that led to Buck v. Bell.

The new controversy over Benningfield’s program has given parts of the 21st century left a chance to jettison with gusto this much of their historical baggage. Thus, “Looped Buffalo,” on twitter, writes thus:


And again thus:

Right Wing View

Returning to Buck v. Bell for a moment.  That pro-eugenics decision was the consequence of an 8 to 1 vote. The only dissenter was a Justice who is considered a conservative on anyone’s scorecard, Justice Pierce Butler.  Butler first distinguished himself in the legal profession as an advocate for railroads and their investors. Butler was nominated to the high court by Warren Harding and he would spend the final years of his life and Justiceship voting against anything that smacked of the New Deal, until he died in 1939 and President Roosevelt was able to replace him with someone friendlier (Frank Murphy).

This is the man who voted against a forced tubal ligation for Carrie Buck. We have no account of his reasons – he wrote no dissent to accompany his vote.  

But coming back to the 21st century: where would we locate Judge Benningfield on the political spectrum? He holds his seat on the bench as an elective position, not an appointed one. And he was not elected by a constituency that would consider itself “progressive” in either the early 20th or the early 21st century sense.  President Donald Trump got 78% of the vote in White County, Tennessee. The last time a Democratic Presidential candidate won the county, it was Al Gore, himself a Tennessean.

It isn’t clear though where Benningfield’s program will find its defenders, if it does find them. Perhaps from the populist center? But not it seems from either the left or the right as the terms are generally understood in the United States in the early 21st century.

On the left, the reaction of Looped Buffalo seems typical. On the right, one hears for example from  Kyle Sammin, writing in The Federalist,  who  sees in Benningfield’s policy “the idea that a certain class is inevitably criminal and should be shorn of the potential to repopulate itself,” an idea he aptly calls “toxic.”