In 1924, Virginia adopted a eugenics statute, with the aim of sterilizing the mentally retarded. The case involved an attempt to sterilize an 18-year old girl named Carrie Buck, who was mentally retarded, and also accused of prostitution and "immorality". It went all the way to the Supreme Court, which decided in favor of sterilization by a whopping 8-1 majority. Here's what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in his majority opinion:
"We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. 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."There was a lone dissenter in the case, who happened to be the only Catholic justice on the court, Pierce Butler. With the benefit of hindsight, we look back in horror at this decision. It was a naked appeal to moral relativism, an exercise in callous utilitarianism. Nowhere did it acknowledge the God-given human dignity of the person in question. And yet, the Catholic justice stood alone. Perhaps he was the subject of anti-Catholic attacks for his dissent. Did he see something the others could not?
Eighty years into the future, will people be looking back and applauding the stance of the Catholic justices in Gonzales v. Carhart, wondering in horror how the weight of established opinion favored such a procedure that again appealed to cold utilitarianism?