The Question of ‘Bioethics’

“Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” – Supreme Court decision Buck vs. Bell


Carrie Buck was 17 when she was forced to enter the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded. Records indicate Carrie received average grades in elementary school, but she was admitted to the Colony on the grounds of feeblemindedness and promiscuity when she was found with a child out of wedlock (it was later discovered the pregnancy was the result of rape). This was the early 20th century, and eugenics was all the rage in America. Many States wanted to implement eugenics sterilization programs, yet the legal framework was not fully developed. To test the legal waters, Carrie was selected by the State of Virginia for sterilization. The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, and in May of 1927 the Court issued the verdict:


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, 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. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

 – Buck v. Bell 274 U.S. 200 (1927)


This verdict was later quoted by Nazi defense-lawyers at Nuremberg. In fact, the eugenics program implemented by the Third Reich was in large part based on the U. S. sterilization system. The decision was an 8-1 landslide, and the only dissenter, Pierce Butler, was a devout Catholic.


Butler didn’t write on the reason for his dissent; however, it is believed his faith played an important role in the decision. Historian Adam Cohen said in an interview:


This is a story with very few heroes, but one group that was fairly heroic throughout the entire eugenic era was the Catholic Church. When sterilization laws were in legislatures around the country, the one group who would reliably show up to oppose them were Catholics… The Church was skeptical of eugenics like sterilization and we do think that Butler was motivated in part by his Church’s position on eugenics.[i]


Popular culture, especially among the intellectual elites, was infatuated with the idea. American sentiment towards sterilization and eugenics is reveled in the 1917 silent film, The Black Stork. The film depicts the true story of the death of the infant John Bollinger.  In 1915, a physician named Dr. Haiselden chose to allow Bollinger to die because John had syphilis (at the time, one of the criteria for sterilization). Although Haiselden was ultimately acquitted of murder charges, the story is a grim reminder of this dark time in American history.


Although there are similarities between current bio-ethics issues and eugenics, the comparison is imperfect. The science behind eugenics and sterilization was terrible. The Stanford–Binet test, for example, was used to assess general intelligence, and based on this test, around half of the soldiers who fought in WWI would have been deemed moronic. Modern day eugenics has been refined into an exact science. Our understanding of biology is much better, and the ability to eradicate disease without direct appeal to sterilization is now possible. Nevertheless, the ethical questions of today do bear more than a passing resemblance to the eugenics disasters of the previous century.


Rapid changes in technology have revived dreams of eradicating pain and disease through gene manipulation. In fact, such technology already exists. Using gene modification software, researchers have identified and corrected a mutation that is responsible for the disease hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM. The experiment was conducted on embryos, and they were not implanted after the tests (i.e., they were left to die). Catholics who oppose such experiments today are, as in the eugenic era, in the minority. They are looked upon as anti-progressives who are hindering advancement by clinging to meaningless folk tales in place of scientific knowledge.


The future is a little frightening. Science has given us the possibility to genetically design our families. These new families will be perfect. The children will never get sick. They will have higher IQs, and DNA sequences correlated with less violent behavior. At least that is the promise, but such advantages come at a cost. Researchers and scientists use technical jargon to skirt around ethical issues, and big corporations backing such research are more interested in profits than morality. The investigation into the ethical ramifications of such technology has not scaled proportionally with the investigation of the economic and medical benefits.


Pope Benedict, in his Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi, rightly called for a critique of the scientific spirit of the modern age. Of equal importance, he also called for a critique of Christian’s views on the scientific process.


Again, we find ourselves facing the question: what may we hope? A self-critique of modernity is needed in dialogue with Christianity and its concept of hope. In this dialogue Christians too, in the context of their knowledge and experience, must learn anew in what their hope truly consists, what they have to offer to the world and what they cannot offer. Flowing into this self-critique of the modern age there also has to be a self-critique of modern Christianity, which must constantly renew its self-understanding setting out from its roots. [ii]


In a recent conversation with a Catholic colleague, I asked him if he believed in evolution. He responded, “It doesn’t matter. God created the world, and how he did it is arbitrary”. Of course, on some level, he is correct. The exact mechanism God implemented to create something out of nothing is moot. The speed at which a miracle occurs doesn’t change its miraculous nature. As Chesterton said:


The medieval wizard may have flown through the air from the top of a tower; but to see an old gentleman walking through the air in a leisurely and lounging manner, would still seem to call for some explanation.[iii]


The question of evolution is important, however, not because it proves or disproves God’s existence, but because it fosters dialogue between philosopher and scientist. It is an opportunity for the kind of critique Benedict called for in Spe Salvi. At the heart of the frightening technical advances (memory implants, DNA-altering, artificial intelligence…) are deep philosophical questions that do have answers in the Catholic faith. Catholics have a right and a responsibility to provide the ethical framework needed and so badly lacking today.






[i] Interview with JB:

[ii] SPE SALVI, Benedict XI

[iii] Everlasting Man, Ch. 1