Normalizing the Unconscionable


On February 21st, Vermont’s House of Representatives passed HR 57, an abortion rights bill with implications even more far-reaching than that signed by New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo just days before. In the forty-six years since Roe v. Wade, Vermont has never enacted any legal restrictions whatsoever on abortion, and, in the words of Vermont House Judiciary Committee member Maxine Grad who supported this bill, it “does not change current law or practice in Vermont.”

So why, one wonders, is Vermont’s legislature working so hard to pass a law they claim changes nothing? Abortion advocates wish to extend so far the right to an abortion and the kind of abortions permitted so that restricting them in the future will become impossible. Even more ominously, for what future legislation might this law serve as groundwork?

An answer to these questions may be found in a disturbing chapter of Vermont’s past, in the state’s active participation in the eugenics movement.

The modern eugenics movement arose in England in the late nineteenth century through the efforts of Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), a half-cousin of Charles Darwin’s with a passion for creating systems of measurement. On reading Darwin’s observations on animal breeding in The Origin of Species (1859), Galton became convinced that Darwin’s theory of natural selection could and should be applied to human reproduction to produce people “hereditarily endowed with noble qualities.”

A full-frontal attack on the principles of human dignity and human solidarity, both conceived in the crucible of Church tradition, began which continues today.

Galton coined the word “eugenics” to refer to this effort, and it was he who first used the terms “nature” and “nurture” to distinguish traits arising from heredity from those attributable to environment.

Galton and those who followed in the eugenics movement located the source of human misery in heredity. The eugenics movement garnered increasing public support as a means of addressing mental illness, crime, and poverty by encouraging people with desirable characteristics to have more children and limiting those with undesirable characteristics from reproducing by passing marriage laws prohibiting their marrying, institutionalizing them, or sterilizing them.

Unfortunately, genetics ignored the fact that “noble” qualities are subjectively defined. To the eugenicist, “noble” often correlated with “wealthy,” yet eugenicists paid no attention to the fact that not all wealthy people acquire or retain their wealth through good means, and a hardworking, honest man who accumulates wealth can have a wastrel son.

In Vermont, the eugenics movement was pushed again by the wealthy and socially prominent Henry F. Perkins, a professor of zoology who taught genetics at the University of Vermont. The study of genetics was, at the time, in its infancy, and while other scholars debated whether nature or nurture was the stronger influence over human character, for Perkins, a dilettante and a superficial thinker, such debate was needless. He was early convinced that social ills could be solved by eliminating inferior genes from the reproductive pool—meaning genes not reflecting his own Anglo-Saxon, Protestant heritage.

The gene pools most needing extinction were the mentally ill, criminals, and French-Canadian Catholics, the last for having more children than Vermont’s predominantly Protestant culture deemed advisable. Through the Vermont Eugenics Project launched in 1925 and continuing until 1936, Perkins identified individuals and families whose poverty, limited education, or religious faith rendered them candidates for institutionalization or sterilization.

Hundreds of Vermonters were sterilized in the name of stabilizing Vermont’s Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture. As with eugenicists in other states, the visibility of Perkins’ activities declined in the 1930s as Nazi sterilization programs made eugenics unpalatable to most Americans. Nevertheless, sterilization on genetic grounds continued in Vermont well into the 1960s.

Perkins didn’t set out to be a monster, nor did most people in the eugenics movement, yet their beliefs produced monstrous results.

Similarly, the pro-choice movement has couched their beliefs in beneficent terms, but the barbarity of what they accept as good has become impossible to hide. The US Senate, for example, has just—without a moment of shame—rejected the “born alive” bill, which says that a baby that survives an abortion cannot be denied medical care solely on the grounds the mother does not want it.

Those dedicated to the defense of human rights—especially the rights of the disabled—are horrified by the refusal to provide equal treatment to a living baby outside the womb. The next logical step in the devaluation of human life is to permit the killing of infants who were initially wanted by the mother but who, days or weeks after birth, the mother no longer wants because the child has a disability.

Does this sound far-fetched? For almost two decades, bioethicist Peter Singer has argued that parents should have the option to kill a baby born with a disability up to 28 days after its birth. (It is worth remembering that in Nazi Germany, the eugenics movement started not with political prisoners, homosexuals, or the Jews, but with sterilizing and then killing the disabled.)

Singer is no fringe crank, though he sounds like one, but a professor at Princeton University, where he holds the Ira W. DeCamp Chair of Bioethics in Princeton’s Center for the Study of Human Values. Singer is the author of one of the most widely used ethics textbooks on American college campuses, and his thinking has influenced thousands.

Social movements have consequences—often terrible consequences that were unforeseen. Step by step, a culture can descend into barbarism unawares. It is up to us to learn from and to avoid the patterns of thought and action that normalize the unconscionable.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Laurie Morrow, Ph.D., Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy, lives with her husband and son in Montpelier, Vermont

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