April 01, 2011

Eugenics expert to serve as bioethicist-in-residence

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A social theory that once reached the United States Supreme Court, was practiced in Nazi Germany, and remains in state statutes today is the focus of a lecture next week at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Paul A. Lombardo, a professor at Georgia State University College of Law in Atlanta, will look at the eugenics movement when he presents the 2011 John & Marsha Ryan Bioethicist-in-Residence lecture at the Southern Illinois University School of Law Center for Health Law and Policy.

Lombardo will present “Blood Libel and Generational Curses: The Legacy of American Eugenics,” at 5 p.m. Wednesday, April 6, in the courtroom at the Hiram H. Lesar Law Building.

Media Advisory

Reporters, photographer and camera crews are welcome to cover the lecture. Lombardo will be available to speak with the media at 4:30 p.m., April 6, prior to the lecture. He will also be available at a book signing at 3:30 p.m. To make arrangements for interviews or for more information on the lecture, contact Alicia Ruiz, the law school’s director of communications and outreach, at 618/453-8700.

Eugenics involves either attempting to improve a society by breeding positive heredity qualities, or at the other end of the spectrum, trying to erase purported genetic defects by discouraging or eliminating reproductive possibilities.

Recently appointed senior adviser to The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, Lombardo is a national expert on eugenics. His advocacy for state governmental repudiation of eugenics has been successful in seven states, and he sponsored a historical marker memorializing a 1927 U.S. Supreme Court decision in “Buck v. Bell” endorsing eugenical sterilization laws in a Virginia case. Lombardo has written about Buck’s case for more than 20 years.

“The Ryan Bioethicist-in-Residence program is an important part of our health law program, which was recently ranked No. 19 in the country in the U.S. News & World Report specialty rankings for law schools,” Dean Cynthia L. Fountaine said. “It enhances the interaction and cooperation between the law school and medical school, which is rather unique in higher education. We appreciate the support from John and Marsha Ryan that allows us to bring nationally recognized bioethicists like Professor Lombardo to Southern Illinois.”

Prior to coming to Georgia State University, Lombardo was on the faculty of both the Schools of Law and Medicine at the University of Virginia, where he was director of the Center for Mental Health Law at the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy, and then director of the program in Law and Medicine in the Center for Biomedical Ethics.

Lombardo will also meet with law students in Assistant Professor Michele Mekel’s legislative and administrative processes class on April 6. He also will meet with the combined ethics committees of Southern Illinois Healthcare -- Memorial Hospital of Carbondale, Herrin Hospital, and St. Joseph Memorial Hospital -- on April 7. Lombardo will then travel to Springfield, where he will meet with faculty and students at the SIU School of Medicine on April 8.

The lecture is free, and the public is welcome.

Lombardo said the eugenics movement developed in the late 19th Century in part from a widespread feeling in the nation that people would inherit the problems of their families. There was a belief that eugenics could eradicate crime, poverty and disease, which in turn could lower taxes for costs associated with hospitals, prisons and mental wards.

Sterilization laws in the United States began in 1907 when Indiana approved the world’s first involuntary sterilization law. By 1933, there were 30 states with sterilization laws -- all before Nazi Germany began its sterilization campaign that year, he said.

Mekel, who is also with the law school’s Center for Health Law and Policy, said there are no eugenics-related laws practiced in the United States but some states still have statutes on the books. Society needs to be “particularly sensitive about how we treat the reproductive rights of all individuals,” Mekel said.

In the aftermath of the Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act in 1924, officials selected a case surrounding the pregnancy of 17-year-old Carrie Buck to test the legality of the law allowing the state to perform sterilization procedures. Buck’s foster parents committed the woman to a state institution after giving birth to an illegitimate child. Court proceedings did not raise the issue that a relative of the foster parents raped Buck, according to the University of Virginia’s Claude Moore Health Sciences Library.

Trial issues included Buck’s mental capacities, purported sexual promiscuity, and her natural mother’s past. An expert witness testified to determining that Carrie Buck’s six-month-old daughter Vivian, was “below the average” in his assessments, and also likely to be “feebleminded.”

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1927 upheld Virginia’s eugenical sterilization law by an 8-1 vote. In using a 1904 Massachusetts case requiring smallpox vaccinations for school children, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., said, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Buck was the first person in Virginia sterilized under the new law in October 1927. The state repealed the law in 1974.

Mekel said she expects the lecture will provide “a history of where the United States has been in terms of eugenics, both in terms of social philosophy and values and also in terms of our legal history.”

“I hope the notion of what could happen moving forward is on their radar. These are things that should not happen, and the only way to not repeat history is to be aware of history.”

Eugenics has been utilized in recent times, particularly the 1994 massacre in Rwanda that killed an estimated 800,000 people, and the civil war in Croatia 20 years ago, Mekel said. In the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court has not reversed its 1927 ruling, but could revisit that case and say it is not authoritative if another similar case comes before the Court, she said.

Lombardo earned his doctorate from the University of Virginia and his law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law. He earned a master’s degree from Loyola University of Chicago, and a bachelor’s degree from Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Mo.

His books include “Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court and Buck v. Bell” in 2008, and “A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era,” earlier this year.

This is the seventh bioethicist-in-residence lecture, and the fifth since John G. and Marsha C. Ryan endowed the visiting lecture series.

Founded in 2006, The John & Marsha Ryan Bioethicist in Residence supports an annual residence and lecture by a law or medicine ethics scholar for the SIU schools of law and medicine. The selected presenter visits classes at both schools and organizes interdisciplinary educational activities for students, residents and faculty. The presenter also interacts with students and offers a public lecture on the scholarship as it relates to law and medicine.

For more information on the lecture, contact Alicia Ruiz, the law school’s director of communications and outreach, at 618/453-8700.