For those who are aware of the dreadful 1927 Supreme Court decision Buck v Bell, the subject of the forced sterilizations of ‘undesirable’ people is not new. In a blog written over three years ago after the publication of Adam Cohen’s book Imbeciles, I stated, “If we devalue a person simply because they do not meet our standard of what a person should be, we are all devalued. The story of Carrie Buck needs to be told and retold, and I am grateful to Cohen for retelling it.” But 1927 was a long time ago. Surely our society has moved past the awful eugenics program that devastated the lives of so many and is no longer capable of such barbaric actions.
Not so fast.
Thanks to her new documentary, “Belly of the Beast”, director Erika Cohn and her team take on the subject of forced sterilizations of women in the California state prison system. It has already been shown in virtual cinemas, but will be broadcast on PBS on November 23. The trailer can be seen here and a very interesting interview with the director, producer Angela Tucker, and subjects Cynthia Chandler and Kelli Dillon is available here.
This is story needs to be told because it confronts something that many have long suspected: America’s infatuation with eugenics did not end with the defeat of the Nazis in World War II. It continues to the present day, with the majority of society looking away from such horrific examples, at least in part because the victims are women of color. The New York Times review of “Belly of the Beast” puts it this way: “Those on the frontline are not only fighting bad actors who abuse their power, they are also battling a public that at best does not care and at worst condones it.”
If we seriously wish to honor the principle of justice in bioethics, we must address this issue head-on. Like so many honest treatments of injustice, “Belly of the Beast” will not be easy to watch, but we must learn its lessons well if we are truly to confront this evil. It is long past time to send Buck v Bell and everything done in its wake to the ash heap of history. Looking away is no longer an option.