Eugenics: How the Remnants of a Bygone Theory Threaten Personal Liberty Over a Century Later

by Sumaira Quraishi 

Trigger warnings: rape, invasive medical procedures, and medical malpractice.

Often, the Supreme Court of the United States is seen as a paragon of the American legal system and the national values it strives to uphold. At least, it used to be. While trust in the sanctity of the Supreme Court has recently been broken over controversial political issues, the Supreme Court is no stranger to making unfavorable and borderline unconstitutional rulings in cases brought before the justices at the time. While this is to be expected, with the court switching from conservative to liberal-dominant every so often, some cases seem to concern unalienable human rights that have been denied by the court, as expected of a supposed higher authority that is ultimately, and always will be, a product of its time. In 1927, Carrie Buck learned just how fallible the highest court in the American legal system could be when infiltrated with an ideology eventually perpetuated by the Nazi party during World War I. 

Image shows Jewish prisoners in their barracks at the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz.
Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz. Source: Yahoo Images.

The Birth of Eugenics

Surprisingly, and perhaps horrifyingly, eugenics was not the child of oppressive or violent regimes, but the culmination of centuries of scientific research and racism woven together and spread through communities worldwide during the early 20th century. Eugenics was a theory created to exterminate certain people who were not considered mentally fit, genetically clean, or conventionally attractive. The ones who decided the people that fit into these categories usually were ones in positions of power or influence in society: doctors, politicians, and scientists. Favored methods for perpetuating eugenics were forced sterilization, societal segregation, and social exclusion, all of which seem to be methods straight out of the time of slavery where eugenicists drew inspiration and justification for eugenics. 

In the modern age, there is a laser-like focus on women’s rights to not have a child, and while this pursuit of maintaining women’s rights is justified, for many vulnerable men and women today the fight for the right to have a child is just as in need of attention. An old theory about the superiority of white, able-bodied people may seem like one to be thrown into the history books and mentioned alongside other conventionally shunned snippets of history in the modern discourse, however, eugenics never truly went away. 

Eugenics Still Lingers

Overshadowing lives today as a phantom of the eugenics school of thought, a forgotten Supreme Court case in 1927 named Buck v. Bell led to the codification of sterilizing those deemed “feeble-minded” and genetically inferior by people in positions of power into law. Carrie Buck was a woman who resided in a mental institution and became pregnant after being raped, resulting in staff at the asylum taking acute notice of Buck. Doctors and directors at the asylum were firmly entrenched in the eugenics culture sweeping across America and firmly believed Buck should not be allowed to carry to term. These men took the stand that Buck should be forcibly sterilized to prevent her genes from being passed on, and the Supreme Court was in full agreement, with the justification for the ruling against Buck being that she had a history of mental illness back to one of her grandmothers and being sterilized would protect the goodness of society by keeping “feeble-minded” and “promiscuous” people from reproducing. 

Image shows the Supreme Court building from the front.
The Supreme Court Building. Source: Yahoo Images.

Not only is Buck v. Bell an appalling ruling that trod on the constitutional rights of Buck, but it also opened the door for forced sterilization procedures to continue without secrecy and, chillingly, has never been overturned. An old legal case from the 1920s may seem like something to be stored away in textbooks and forgotten, yet, eugenics practices in the form of forced sterilizations are happening today

In California between 2006 and 2010, almost 150 women in two different prisons were given hysterectomies without their consent or legal documentation authorized by the state, with 100 suspected cases of sterilization dating back to 1997 uncovered as well. Furthermore, in 2017 a Tennessee judge offered to reduce prison sentences by 30 days for any inmate who signed up to receive a birth control implant or a vasectomy. The latest case of eugenics rearing its head in American practices was in 2020 when it was revealed that hysterectomies were being performed illegally on women in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers. These cases are not the only ones concerning the continued use of forced sterilizations to prevent incarcerated or institutionalized individuals from having the right to choose to have a child, with many more subject to the archaic practice who have yet to have their story told. These practices are considered morally reprehensible by the general public but can trace their roots to eugenic procedures approved by the Supreme Court in a case that was challenged but never overturned, and some laws approving the use of sterilizations are still in existence in states such as Virginia. 

Image shows an empty cell area of a prison.
Prison. Source: Yahoo Images.

What Can Be Done

Fighting a system that has failed a large portion of the American population, and pushing for a Supreme Court ruling to be overturned when the nation’s political climate seems fit to burst with elections on the horizon can seem incredibly intimidating. These thoughts are not unfounded, but what government bodies forget is that their power comes from their people and constituents. Harmful practices can be challenged with public favor and fervor. Staying informed on what influences modern atrocities like Buck v. Bell and knowing that the majority of the population supports upholding the 14th Amendment protecting civil liberties keeps people motivated to improve the lives of their fellow Americans. Leaving Buck v. Bell as a precedent in U.S. law allows for unprotected groups of individuals who are incarcerated or institutionalized to be at heightened risk of human rights abuse, and while forced sterilization is morally reprehensible, the law does not currently outline sterilization as illegal since the Supreme Court ruling remains standing. Reaching out to local or state politicians is an option for those who want to appeal hurtful laws, and a less intimidating option is to join advocacy groups whose views align with your own. 

For more information on another situation involving eugenic practices ruining the lives of nonincarcerated individuals, the case of a fertility doctor who artificially inseminated dozens of his clients with his sperm and remains free from jail can be found here.

Yeshiva University vs. Pride Alliance Group

 

Yeshiva University Wilf Campus
Yeshiva University’s Wilf Campus (source: yahoo images)

On Friday, September 16th, 2022, in response to a court’s ruling that the university cannot block the formation of a LGBTQIA+ group, New York’s Yeshiva University decided to temporarily suspend all undergraduate student activities and clubs. Yeshiva claims that permitting the formation of a LGBTQ+ student organization would be “inconsistent with the school’s Torah values and the religious environment it seeks to maintain.”

How It Started

Pride Parade NYC 2011
2011 Pride Parade in NYC (source: yahoo images)

The LGBTQ+ group in question is Yeshiva’s Pride Alliance, which was unofficially created in 2018. They were unofficial in the sense that their support was low and their group size was small— as all student groups are in the beginning. The student group describes itself as a supportive space for all students, regardless of sexual orientation and gender, with the goal of allowing all members to feel secure, respected, and represented at Yeshiva.

It is understandable that one of the group’s goals was representation. In the modern day, it is extremely unlikely to find any major university without an instituted pride alliance group. Therefore, Yeshiva’s Pride Alliance group wanting that same, basic characteristic—of representation—should not come as a surprise. 

However, when they  approached the university last year to ask if they could get officially recognized as a student group, they were instantly denied. In response, however, they remained determined, and proceeded to sue the school for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The Legal Claims

NYC CIty Court
New York City Court  (source: yahoo images)

The Pride Alliance group sued Yeshiva for breaking the New York City Human Rights Law, a law code prohibiting discrimination on a basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, and other classifications.

In response to the lawsuit, Yeshiva University, which identifies itself as an Orthodox Jewish university, claimed that they could not recognize the group because it “conflicted with the school’s interpretation of the Torah.” 

The lawsuit first went to a court in New York, where it was concluded that the university must officially recognize the group. The court argued that Yeshiva was not a religious institution (which would thereby make it immune to New York City’s Human Rights Law), but an educational institution. 

Yeshiva disagreed and appealed to the Supreme Court. At first, the Supreme Court told Yeshiva to ignore the prior ruling, and that the Justices will be the ones to declare what rights LGBTQ+ groups have in universities. 

However, that standing changed rather quickly. Just earlier this week, by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court told Yeshiva that they should follow the prior court’s ruling because they have not exhausted all their options before appealing to the Supreme Court. In other words, the Supreme Court voted to send Yeshiva’s appeal back to local courts; they did not rule that Yeshiva acted unconstitutionally. 

Yeshiva’s Next Step

Empty Campus
An empty campus (source: yahoo images)

After Yeshiva was notified that they should follow the prior ruling (meaning that they must officially recognize an LGBTQ+ student group), they concluded that their only option was to shut down all undergraduate activities and clubs. 

Enforcing such drastic measures upon the entire undergraduate population, as one might assume, was an unprecedented move on Yeshiva’s end. Many might infer that this action could have been done in an attempt to mask discrimination. Is it truly discriminatory to not recognize a pride alliance group when also not recognizing any other groups at all? Most would say it is not. That, from what we can assume, is what Yeshiva wants until the legal proceedings sort out: put forth a blanket disapproval of all student groups so they cannot be faulted for targeting an LGBTQ+ one.

Yeshiva’s measures have caused many to view the university as homophobic; however, the president of the university, Rabbi Ari Berman, was quick to demobilize those allegations, stating that “[Yeshiva University’s] commitment and love for our LGBTQ students are unshakeable.”

However unshakable Yeshiva’s love for LGBTQ+ students might be, we have yet to see. We must not overlook what we have seen—it merely took a pride alliance group to ask for recognition to rid the entire university of all its undergraduate activities and clubs.

What’s to Come

supreme court
The Supreme Court of the United States of America (source: yahoo images)

As Yeshiva returns back to local courts we are unsure of what will happen in the future—except that it will not be filled with any undergraduate activities. If Yeshiva’s appeal succeeds and the city’s ruling is overturned, then the LGBTQ+ group will not be able to get recognized by the school. If the ruling does not get overturned, Yeshiva could appeal their way back up to the Supreme Court.

However, even if this were to happen, precedence seems to be against the LGBTQ+ group. In prior cases, the Supreme Court has sided consistently with religious universities when discussing issues of religious freedoms (i.e. what a religious university can and cannot do). 

Moreover, one of the dissenting members of the initial Supreme Court vote, Samuel Alito, stated, “[Does the First Amendment] permit a State to force a Jewish school to instruct its students in accordance with an interpretation of Torah that the school, after careful study, has concluded is incorrect? The answer to that question is surely ‘no.’” 

In other words, Justice Alito is stating that in his opinion, states should not have the authority to tell religious schools what to do if it does not align with their religious understandings.

With all of this in mind, one could reasonably come to the conclusion that the future of Yeshiva University’s Pride Alliance group is dependent on whether or not the initial city court was correct in deeming Yeshiva a state institution and not a religious one. 

If the city court was incorrect, Yeshiva could inherit the authority to deny recognition to a group seeking representation—even though, allegedly, their commitment and support for LGBTQ+ persons is “unshakable.”  If the city court was correct, representation and recognition of those underrepresented shall prevail. 

LGBTQ+ Rights

pride flags
Pride flags (source: yahoo images)

The events that unfolded between Yeshiva and its pride alliance group returned a variety of different topics to the forefront of the media. One of which, in particular, is the topic of LGBTQ+ persons and the rights they have. 

Discrimination against LGBTQ+ persons has been an ongoing issue for hundreds of years. For years, The United Nations has repeatedly stated that “discrimination against LGBTI  people undermines the human rights principles outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet discrimination and violence against people in the LGBTI community are all too common. Homophobic, biphobic and transphobic attitudes remain deeply embedded in many cultures around the world.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was published in 1948. 74 years ago. Not only does discrimination still exist, but same-sex marriage, in 2022, is only legal in 24 countries. 

With Yeshiva University’s recent decision, we are seeing the global issue of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ rights back in mainstream media. Equality and respect for all people should be the standard that we live by. 

Despite all that has occurred, Yeshiva could bring forth new lessons for us all. Maybe, (or perhaps hopefully), one of those lessons could be that we, as a society, should strive to make discrimination of all people a thing of the past—make it history, so we can learn from it. 

Shelby County v. Holder: The Voting Rights Act in Peril

Supreme Court of the United States of America
“Supreme Court” by Mark Fischer. Source: Creative Commons

One of the crowning achievements of the Civil Rights Movement was the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, the Voting Rights Act deemed state and federal tactics designed to restrict African Americans from exercising their right to vote unconstitutional. This made voter suppression efforts such as poll taxes and literacy tests illegal and required states and jurisdictions with a history of voter suppression and discrimination to obtain pre-clearance from the federal government before implementing any changes to voting laws or election practices. In 2013, citizens of Shelby County, Alabama, sued Attorney General Eric Holder, citing that sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act were no longer necessary because discrimination in voting was no longer a problem. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. This decision has the power to single-handedly unhinge the electoral process in America.

1965 Voting Rights Act

Prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, minority voters were victims of vicious voter suppression tactics, and many lost their lives in the pursuit of an elusive constitutional right. These tactics included unaffordable poll taxes, frivolous literacy tests and harassment. Poll taxes financially penalized non-voters for every year they went unregistered to vote since the 1890s, a time when people of African descent were not legally allowed to vote. Literacy tests were designed to deter minority voters, many of whom were illiterate due to oppression and lack of educational opportunities. Women such as Amelia Boyton Robinson and Annie Lee Cooper attempted to register multiple times in the City of Selma, Alabama. These women and others were met with hostile opposition and fierce resistance from the state. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 enforced the 15th amendment of the United States Constitution and prohibited discriminatory voting practices such as literacy tests. It also empowered the federal government to take an active role in the oversight of voter registration and electoral processes in states that have a documented history of voter suppression and intimidation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 explicitly prohibited the states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia from making changes to voting procedure without the approval of the federal government.  Following the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, voter registration increased drastically amongst minorities throughout the United States, especially in the South.

Shelby County v. Holder

On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States of America made a monumental decision that has and will continue to have residual effects on the electoral process moving forward. Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S 529 (2013)directly challenged the legality of Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Section 4 implemented a coverage formula that determined which voting districts were required to receive governmental pre-clearance. Pre-clearance is a term used to describe the role of the federal government in the voting process. Jurisdictions that were required by the 1965 Voting Rights Act to receive pre-clearance from the federal government were restricted from making any changes to voting laws without the pre-approval of the federal government. Prior to the pre-clearance clause, states that have long histories of voter suppression were allowed to make legal changes to the voting process with no opposition. The Supreme Court ruled that segments of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act were unconstitutional and should no longer be implemented. The court ruled the restrictions placed on particular states years prior are no longer relevant and are now in violation of the state’s constitutional right to regulate elections. Chief Justice John Roberts stated in the opinion of the court, “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”  The court had the opportunity to reinforce The Voting Rights Act and instead decided to relegate the responsibility of protecting voting rights to Congress. This ruling greatly weakened the Voting Rights Act as a whole. Now, states such as Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia are free to make changes to voting laws that are not explicitly covered under other sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Shelby County, Alabama successfully argued that states with a blatant history of racism and oppression were no longer in need of governmental oversight because “that was a long time ago” and these discriminatory practices had been discontinued. Following the Shelby County v. Holder decision of 2013, the state of Alabama began regressing advancements made since the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Alabama passed a “voter ID law, closed polling places in predominately Black counties, and purged hundreds of thousands of people from voter rolls.”

The Future of Voting

The true ramifications of Shelby County v. Holder are yet to be seen, but there have been slight and monumental changes to the election process thus far. Alabama now requires a valid photo ID, polling stations are closing for no apparent reason, and voting lines are unusually long. Voting remains elusive for minorities, and the United States still does not have free and fair elections. For example, the most recent gubernatorial election in the state of Georgia displayed instances of blatant voter suppression. Brian Kemp was serving as the Secretary of State for the state of Georgia while he was actively campaigning against Stacey Abrams for Governor. Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election was riddled with complaints filed by voters that citied instances of voter suppression at and around the polls. The most prominent complaint was that in 2017 then Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office removed 560,000 Georgia voters from the state voter registration logs. Many of the voters that were purged from Georgia’s registration logs in 2017 were not made aware of this until they attempted to vote in the 2018 gubernatorial election. Prior to the decision rendered in Shelby County v. Holder, Brian Kemp would have been required by law to obtain pre-clearance from the federal government before purging these voters from Georgia’s voter registration logs. Without the protections of the federal government, state governments are free to alter the voting process with no consciences. The 2017 voter purge in Georgia is one of the more well-known instances of state exploitation of the Shelby County v. Holder decision in the name of voter suppression.

With a Heavy Heart

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg fought tirelessly for the protections of civil rights in America. A formidable champion of voting rights, she believed it is Court’s duty above all else to protect the right to vote and to protect the election process.Justice Ginsberg’s most notable dissent was in the Shelby County v. Holder decision. Justice Ginsberg’s stated in her dissent, Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet. Justice Ginsberg’s dissent in the Shelby County v. Holder decision can and will be citied in future legal documentation that directly challenges the decision rendered in Shelby County v. Holder. Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s dissent is indicative of the life that she lived. Justice Ginsberg was a champion of civil rights and she made a monumental impact.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg
“Ruth Bader Ginsberg” by The Aspen Institute. Source: Creative Commons

Call to Action

Voting is a fundamental right that should be guaranteed to all human beings of voting age. It is imperative that we understand the price of not voting and understand the importance of being politically aware and conscience of the decisions being made on our behalf without our knowledge. November 3, 2020 is quickly approaching and the need to vote is as important now as it has always been. The best way to amend the injustices made by the Supreme Court and elected officials is to elect individuals that will fight for justice and make voting easier for all citizens. The goal is to guarantee free and fair elections and to have an electoral system that prioritizes everyone equally and refuses to benefit from the marginalization of valuable perspectives and unique experiences.

House Democrats advocating for the restoration of Section 5 of The Voting Rights Act
“#RestoreTheVote” by House Democrats. Source: Creative Commons