I’m actually rather surprised that the movement to castrate autistic kids isn’t more in the news. Parents of autistic kids are very good at advocacy, so where are they on this one? On the other hand, the abuse of the mentally and cognitively disabled is so ingrained in our society, that perhaps these parents can’t even see it.
The idea of castrating undesirables is not new. An American eugenics movement arose in the early part of the 20th century, leading to eugenics legislation, such as the Johnson Immigration Act of 1924. To give you an idea of some of the thinking that went into this legislation:
Thank God we have in America perhaps the largest percentage of any country in the world of the pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock; certainly the greatest of any nation in the Nordic breed. It is for the preservation of that splendid stock that has characterized us that I would make this not an asylum for the oppressed of all countries, but a country to assimilate and perfect that splendid type of manhood that has made America the foremost Nation in her progress and in her power, and yet the youngest of all the nations.
—Senator Ellison DuRant Smith (SC)
The Strangeloveian prose may sound quirky to the modern ear, but this thinking was common, and led to real world horror. For this (and for political reasons), Jews were left to die in Europe, and Americans of “inferior breeding” were imprisoned and sterilized.
A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Just as Creationists understand just enough evolutionary theory to get it spectacularly wrong, American eugenicists knew just enough (and the average American next to nothing) about the heritability of traits to make it conform to their ideologies, regardless of the accuracy of their interpretations. The infamous Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell in 1927, which upheld a Virginia law requiring the sterilization of the mentally retarded gave us the famous quote from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” No one was going to question the heritability of “imbecility”; it was a convenient truth, and it was going to stay that way. And lest you think that Holmes was simply hurling invective, “imbecile” was a technical term: it referred to people with an IQ of 26-50, and lay between”moron” (IQ of 51-70) and “idiot” (IQ of 0-25). The term “mongolian idiot” was the official nomenclature for Trisomy 21 (Down’s syndrome) because of the cognitive disability and eye shape characteristic of these people.
So Holmes was using the language of science to perpetrate an inhumane and unscientific practice that fit the ideology of the times (and lest you think this is a distant historical relic, the Virginia law wasn’t repealed until 1974). Of course, sterilization was too useful a tool of social control to limit it to “imbeciles”; In Angela Davis’s book, Women, Race, and Class, Davis documents that between 1964 and 1981 about 65 percent of South Carolina sterilizations were performed on African Americans.
The history of forced sterilization in the U.S. may not be well-remembered, but it is long and dark. If we are to protect some of our most vulnerable, we must change our ahistorical thinking. And, yes, chemical castration, as is being practiced on autistic children, is not the same as actual sterilization. In some ways, it’s worse. It interferes with normal growth and development, perhaps adding life-long psychological and physical disabilities to the cognitive and social problems that already exist. It does, however, share at least one fundamental characteristic with forced sterilization: it is a crime against humanity.