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Better for All the World

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Better for All the World - The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America's Quest for Racial Purity
By Harry Bruinius. (Alfred A. Knopf, New York: 2006. Pg. 401. Illustrations.) ISBN: 0-375-41371-5.

Reviewed by Simone Bonim - March 31, 2006

Eugenics is the practice of improving a blood line (race) through selective breeding and works much like the practices seen in purebred dog breeding programs. The main difference is, however, that eugenics is usually used to refer to humans. Building upon the theory of natural selection that was delineated by Charles Darwin, eugenics began with the altruistic goal of improving the human blood line by weeding out physical and mental impairments and by encouraging individuals to select mates with which they could produce 'superior' children. The main problem with the theory of eugenics is that it is a practice susceptible to corruption and misuse.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, eugenics garnered a large following in the United States and it was associated with the ideal of racial hygiene and the notion that eugenics was necessary for the safety and welfare of all. One of the main components of eugenics was the practice of sterilization (mainly of women), for the purposes of preventing those deemed unfit by society, from reproducing. In addition, mentally and physically disabled individuals, criminals, the poor, and minorities were forcibly sterilized, often without their knowledge. Perhaps worst of all, this practice was actually sanctioned by the Supreme Court, which ruled in the case of Buck vs. Bell, that the 'state' had the right to sterilize anyone that they deemed to be unfit.

In Better For All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America's Quest for Racial Purity, Harry Bruinius provides an intriguing glimpse into this infamous period of American history that reached, in some areas, well into the 1970's and which helped to encourage the development of Nazi Germany's expansive eugenics program that led to the mass murder of millions of 'undesirables' including Jews, Gypsies, and Homosexuals, as well as German's with mental or physical impairments.

Better For All the World is a popular history of the American eugenics movement told through the stories of the men and women who fostered the movement, as well as those that were harmed by it. As such, it is written more in the form of a collaborative narrative biography, rather than as an academic history of the American eugenics movement. Some of the notables detailed in this book include Carrie Buck, John H. Bell, Francis Galton, Charles Davenport, Aubrey Strode, and Harry Laughlin. Through these detailed biographical sketches, Bruinius provides an intriguing glimpse into the evolution of the American eugenics movement, how it was implemented, and its consequences. He also touches lightly upon how it influenced eugenics movements in Europe, especially in Nazi Germany.

Carrie Buck, the Buck in Buck vs. Bell, is used as a focal point for this narrative. Bruinius provides a detailed overview of her family's history, her own life, and the events that led to her forcible sterilization. Buck was a poor young girl, perhaps a little promiscuous and undisciplined, but otherwise unremarkable. Despite this fact, she, her sister Emma, and their mother were all eventually taken into state custody, declared to be a 'morons' and forcibly sterilized to prevent them from polluting the American race pool. Bruinius explains why Carrie Buck's sterilization was made into a legal test case, and the repercussions of this decision. He also examines how, both before and since the Carrie Buck case, thousands of American's have been unknowingly sterilized under the cloak of medical necessity. As important, Bruinius delves into the factors that led so many men and women to lend their support to the eugenics movement. He also provides detailed biographical sketches of those that were at the forefront of the movement from scientists to politicians, both in terms of developing it, and in implementing its dictates.

This book provides an excellent, and memorable introduction to the American eugenics movement. However, it provides little new information for those already familiar with this aspect of American history. This is a hard book to put down. The narrative is compelling. The topic gripping, and the implications of the eugenics movement are profound. Although Better For All the World reads almost like a novel, this is a well-researched book that is both intriguing and edifying.

Related Reviews:

Eugenics and the Welfare State: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, edited by Gunnar Broberg and Nils Roll-Hansen.
An academic overview of the history, politics, and science of eugenics programs throughout Scandinavia.

Public Health Law: Power, Duty, Restraint, 2nd Edition, by Lawrence O. Gostin.
Newly revised and expanded, this is a comprehensive introduction to the field of public health law, and the role that the government does, and should play in protecting the health of its citizens.

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