Thursday, April 26, 2007

It Was Eighty Years Ago Today...

With the barrage of anti-Catholic bigotry surrounding the alignment of Supreme Court votes in the recent partial birth abortion case, it is well worth reflecting on another case where the Catholics (or in this case, the Catholic) stood apart. I'm referring to the May 2, 1927 case of Buck v. Bell, which dealt with issues of eugenics and compulsory sterilization (almost eighty years ago to the day).

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?

4 comments:

Antonio Manetti said...

In a previous post, you charactetized I D & E as a

"...procedure that the weight of public opinion is against"

Now you say:

"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"

Which is it?

Morning's Minion said...

Oh, I was quite careful in choosing my words! I am distinguishing "public opinion" (obvious) from "established opinion" (the opinion leaders, purveyers of "conventional wisdom").

Antonio Manetti said...

You refer to:

(the opinion leaders, purveyers of "conventional wisdom").

The verdict of the justices was 8 to 1 in support of upholding the sterilization law.

I doubt there's evidential proof that such an overwhelming body of opinion exists among 'opinion leaders'. I suspect the contrary is true.

It's probably worth noting in passing that the law on the books today allows an exception when the woman's life is at stake. Do you support that as well? Does the procedure become any less barbaric under those circumstances?

Franklin Jennings said...

I'd be interested in hearing that answer myself.