Joseph Cotto, 4/12/2016 [Archive]

'Three Generations of Imbeciles are Enough'

By Joseph Cotto

Where do your rights end and the rights of others begin?

Is it when you want to place plastic flamingos on your front lawn, only to have homeowners' association authorities nix the idea? Could it take place when you want to paint your car red, yet the dealership you leased it from crushes your ambition? What about when you watch your best friend marry the gold-digger who will surely bankrupt him? You have freedom of speech to indicate the obvious, but he has no obligation to take your advice seriously.

Bottom line: Just because we want something — no matter how righteous our desires may be — none of us can force our beliefs onto others.

Even mom and dad cannot make their children believe something which the little tykes, for whatever reason, refuse to accept. While parents may give their children a religious upbringing, if Johnny and Joanie do not buy into the dogmas, nobody can make them.

On a fundamental level, human beings are an island unto themselves. We make personal decisions and, for better or worse, are judged.

In a society such as our own — one whose legal system is based on the concept of individual rights — each of us is recognized as the master of our own destiny. Of course — like any other institution created and implemented by humans — it sometimes fails to live up to standards.

Nonetheless, the guiding principle of American jurisprudence, derived from English common law, is that each individual is an autonomous entity meriting basic rights. He or she must be recognized as such. Respect for personal liberty is the essential element of our Anglo-American judicial tradition. 'Justice for all' serves none without it.

Why, then, are people making such a big deal over Buck v. Bell?

In a nutshell, the 1927 Supreme Court decision holds that mandatory sterilization does not violate the Constitution; specifically when people are in government custody and harbor an illness which can be passed onto descendants.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was one of our nation's most celebrated jurists. Appointed by Teddy Roosevelt, he sat on the Supreme Court for almost thirty years, earning a bipartisan consensus of respect.

"Carrie Buck is a feeble-minded white woman who was committed to the [Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble Minded]...She is the daughter of a feeble-minded mother in the same institution, and the mother of an illegitimate feeble-minded child," Holmes wrote in the Court's majority opinion.

He later said: "An Act of Virginia...recites that the health of the patient and the welfare of society may be promoted in certain cases by the sterilization of mental defectives...the Commonwealth is supporting...many defective persons who if now discharged would become a menace but if incapable of procreating might be discharged with safety and become self-supporting with benefit to themselves and to society...experience has shown that heredity plays an important part in the transmission of insanity, imbecility, etc."

Holmes went on to note 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...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. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes...Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

What more is there to say?

In the 1980s, legal scholar, and later Obama Administration adviser, Paul A. Lombardo claimed that Buck was not really imbecilic; nor was her mother or offspring. Even if Lombardo's argument is true, Holmes's legal rationale, in a general sense, is unimpeachable. The conditions for state sterilization were restricted in 1942's Skinner v. Oklahoma — a good thing from my perspective — but the core of Buck v. Bell remains intact.

How can mandatory vaccinations be okay, yet compulsory sterilizations are immoral? Both measures, if administered under the law, respect personal rights while preventing people from impeding on others' freedom. People are saved from miserable existences — if not death.

Buck v. Bell, simply put, is pro-life.

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Copyright 2016 Joseph Cotto, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Joseph Cotto is a historical and social journalist, and writes about politics, economics and social issues. Email him at joseph.f.cotto@gmail.com.

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