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Empathy and Eugenics on the Supreme Court

Posted by Pete Shanks (BioPoliticalTimes)

Oliver Wendell Holmes
Oliver Wendell Holmes

In 1927, involuntary sterilization was legitimized by the U.S. Supreme Court, in the notorious case of Buck vs. Bell, which stains the reputation of the great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes. Technically, that decision still stands, though the laws it upheld have been overturned.

President Obama was absolutely correct when he said that "justice isn't about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook, it is also about how laws affect the daily realities of peoples lives," and went on to describe "empathy" as "an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes." In today's Los Angeles Times, Michael Hiltzik pushes back hard against criticism of "empathy" as a qualification, using Buck vs. Bell as his case study:

Certainly Holmes' background showed. His upbringing as the son of an eminent Boston physician, his Harvard education and experience as a commercial lawyer arguably blinded him to the humanity of those whose lives fell outside the scope of his experience.

Supporters of eugenics were often distinguished people. But they were arrogant and blind to the worth of (some) others. That's a continuing problem; empathy is a good antidote.

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