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Tennessee Judge Gives Inmates Reduced Sentences If They Sterilize Themselves


For a belief system supposedly banished to the distant past, the theory of eugenics is strangely persistent. Recently it reared its head in Tennessee as a local judge launched a new policy granting male prisoners time off their sentences if they agreed to be sterilized. Female prisoners were offered the same deal if they agreed to have birth control devices implanted. Although couched in the language of personal responsibility, the program represents a state government dipping its toe back into the pool of eugenics and becoming involved once more in a hateful theory from a dark period in our history.

Judge Sam Benningfield was elected in a nonpartisan election to the General Sessions Court in White County, Tennessee, and probably did not run as a progressive. White County is hardly a hotbed of twenty-first-century progressivism—Democratic presidential candidates have not carried the county since 2000, and President Trump got 78 percent of the vote there last year.

But as it did a century ago, the ideas of the eugenics branch of progressivism can prove seductive even to those who would otherwise call themselves conservative. No matter their political stripe, once in office many politicians are tempted to use the power of government to do good, as they define it, even they should know from history that no good can come of restricting people’s rights to have children. It is a policy that is anti-human and against the spirit of America.

Everything Old Is New Again

I wrote back in April about the history of eugenics as a part of the progressive movement, and how twenty-first-century leftists routinely ignore that history. Eugenics was a widespread movement that was part of a growing political and scientific consensus in the early twentieth century. Progressives, who wanted the government run by experts according to “scientific” principles, saw this as the natural culmination of their pursuit of a more perfect human species.

Even high school textbooks of the day taught eugenics as uncontroversial science. Consider these lines from “A Civic Biology,” a 1914 biology textbook, written by George William Hunter and issued by the nation’s largest book publisher:

Hundreds of families … exist to-day, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money…. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.

If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe, and are now meeting with success in this country.

When You Have Only a Hammer, Everything Is A Nail

It is the stuff of fascism, and progressives eventually disavowed eugenics, at least publicly, when they saw its results in Nazi Germany and elsewhere. Yet there are some, mostly on the Left but sometimes on the Right, who still believe that the solution to humanity’s ills is fewer humans.

We saw this recently in Damian Carrington’s article in The Guardian entitled “Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children.” The old justifications are tweaked in accordance with newer leftist goals and customs—the health of the planet has replaced the health of the species—but the prescription is ever the same: culling the herd. Carrington could have been writing a century ago as he interviews Kimberly Nicholas, one of the researchers involved in the study he cites:

We recognise these are deeply personal choices. But we can’t ignore the climate effect our lifestyle actually has,’ said Nicholas. ‘It is our job as scientists to honestly report the data. Like a doctor who sees the patient is in poor health and might not like the message ‘smoking is bad for you’, we are forced to confront the fact that current emission levels are really bad for the planet and human society.’

Progressives say “current emission levels are really bad for the planet” just as they might have said “current reproduction levels are really bad for the species” back in 1914. Wrong as they were back then, one must at least credit them for wanting to help humanity; their modern successors seemingly do not even care about that. Advancing humanity takes a back seat to advancing the planet.

They never manage to answer the question: if decreasing the human population is necessary to save the planet, for whom exactly is the planet meant to be saved?

‘Three Generations Is Enough’

Judge Benningfield’s idea harkens back to the older, human-centered progressivism, but it is still a vision of humanity at odds with the dignity of every individual. That is the nature of progressivism, after all. It is a philosophy steeped in the ichor of utilitarianism, the theory that society should pursue policies that achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Like a lot of terrible ideas, that sounds great at first. But it inevitably conflicts with individual rights, and under progressivism those rights must be subordinated to the welfare of the community, as defined by the state. Utilitarianism always ends in the gulag. A local news story on the judge’s pronouncement laid out his reasoning:

Judge Benningfield told NewsChannel 5 that he was trying to break a vicious cycle of repeat offenders who constantly come into his courtroom on drug related charges, subsequently can’t afford child support and have trouble finding jobs.

‘I hope to encourage them to take personal responsibility and give them a chance, when they do get out, to not to be burdened with children. This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves.’

That idea of “trying to break a vicious cycle of repeat offenders” is, nearly word-for-word, an echo of the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Buck v. Bell, the 1927 case that upheld Virginia’s policy of sterilizing state asylum inmates without their consent. The decision by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes laid out a similar desire to break a cycle of reproduction by people the judge viewed as unworthy of life: “It is better…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.”

Benningfield’s policy is less coercive than the one in Buck v. Bell, but it is still grotesque. His goal and the goal Holmes explained are the same. Unlike the old Virginia law, the judge would allow prisoners to choose their reproductive potential. For women, the process is easily reversible and even for men the surgery can typically be undone. But the idea that a certain class is inevitably criminal and should be shorn of the potential to repopulate itself is toxic.

People Are Not a Disease, No Matter Their Parentage

As Glenn Stanton wrote here last week, the problem is too few people, not too many. Each human being has the potential to create, to explore, to build, and to contribute to society. Most of us will pass through this life without leaving behind much that future generations will care about. The exception to this is our children. In them, and in their children, and their children, we all contribute to sustaining our species and our cultures. Encouraging people to forgo that process condemns them to oblivion and tells them that they are not worthy to be a part of that continuum.

Some people may choose to sterilize themselves, but it is not a decision the government should encourage. To do so inevitably forces the state to choose which people are better than others and which have no chance of adding anything to the nation, even through their offspring.

America is in love with rags-to-riches stories. We are all enamored of tales where people rise up from humble beginnings against all odds to achieve great things for themselves and their communities. Eugenics, even at this minor and voluntary level, belies that image. It tells us that, in the government’s view, some people are so debased that neither they nor their descendants will ever rise above their lowly station, that they will never contribute anything to their communities but crime and poverty. It is a deeply pessimistic view of humanity, and one at odds with the true spirit of America.