Friday, September 23, 2011

Victoria Nourse on Eugenics Laws in 20th Century America

My apologies for posting this late: Here are my thoughts on the first brown bag of the year.

History of science can boast a long standing concern for interdisciplinarity, and, in this spirit of bridging departmental divides, it seems appropriate that our first brown bag speaker should be a guest from outside the History of Science. On Friday, Victoria Nourse, Burris-Bascom Professor from the School of Law, discussed her book, In Reckless Hands (2008), which has provided enlightening social and historical texture to the landmark Supreme Court decision of Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942).

We can assume that Professor Nourse’s research offers fresh insights and challenges to the field of legal history. For instance, Nourse argues that the Skinner v. Oklahoma decision, striking down certain eugenics laws by invoking the “Equal Protections” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, has wrongly been depicted as vindicating individual rights. Characterizing the case in terms of privacy and personal liberties, as many legal experts have done, would be anachronistic even if Skinner v. Oklahoma does seem to resonate with later court decisions advocating these rights, such as Roe v. Wade (1973). Nourse also pulls no punches in her depiction of Oliver Wendell Holmes (a sweetheart of many contemporary legal scholars) as a champion of the eugenics movement and a staunch defender of compulsory sterilization.

In addition to these historical revisions, Nourse also levels a methodological challenge for legal historians to engage in “dirty history.” Apparently in the field of legal history, most historical evidence is drawn from the published pages of court opinions and case law. Nourse is calling for more work to be done on the individual people who successfully brought their cases to trial.
Recalling the grit and dust that accumulated on her fingers while flipping through files in the Oklahoma Historical Society, she explained that the term “dirty history” does not simply refer to the nitty-gritty details of social history, but also the tactile experience of handling documents that have gone unnoticed for decades.

The story of Skinner v. Oklahoma is not simply a legal history, however. It is also a history of science. Nourse begins her book with a quote from the renowned biometrician and founder of the eugenics movement, Francis Galton (1822-1911): “Eugenics is a virile creed, full of hopefulness, and appealing to many of the noblest feelings of our nature” (as quoted in In Reckless Hands, pg. 13). Scientific pronouncements on the heritability of deviant and criminal behavior became the foundation of an argument for control over certain races and social classes. In many respects, Nourse’s is a cautionary tale of what can happen when scientific theories enter into the social, political, and legal arena. It also documents the malleability of certain categories, which, initially, may seem firmly established. For instance, the word “race” itself took on multiple meanings as it was used in the documents that Nourse uncovered in her research. It could be used to identify a person’s ethnicity, but also their social class or gender.

Nourse’s presentation serves as a reminder of the many research opportunities that might be discovered at certain intersections of a society. The dynamic interplay between legal and scientific thought – in the United States and in general – seems to be an area of study that has yet to be fully explored.

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