Just Curious

Some topics seem to be entirely off limits for discussion these days. Often, they are ideas that not all that long ago were not only not taboo, but were embraced at the highest levels of progressive academia and government, right here in the USA. To the philosophically minded, though, there are no off-limits topics — and to the anthropologically curious, taboos can be importantly revealing phenomena. So here’s something I wonder about.

Our penal system exacts a wide range of punishment, from warnings and paltry fines to solitary confinement, life imprisonment, and even death. One thing we never do to those we punish, however, except rarely in the case of repeat sex offenders, is sterilize them. Why not? If we are willing to kill them, or lock them away alone for the rest of their lives, why, exactly, do we not also impose sterilization as one of our harsher punishments, particularly in light of the increased likelihood that the children of violent criminals will themselves be violent criminals, for reasons of both nature and nurture?

We can block one exit right away: an appeal to the rights of the unborn children won’t do — it is obviously absurd to assign rights to people who do not even exist. The only party whose “rights” are being curtailed is the offender himself, and we are already willing, for the cruelest crimes, to deprive him even of the “right” to continue living. Another try: sterilization is a life sentence of childlessness. But we routinely impose life sentences, and certainly the death penalty is far more severe. As a deterrent, surely sterilization would be as effective as some of the other unpleasant possibilities we place before the prospective offender. So what is it? Is it that we consider tampering with the body to be out of bounds? Why?

I’m sure that some people reading this are already feeling a creeping moral revulsion, and a surge of antipathy toward yours truly. But hold your fire: I’m just trying to get to the bottom of why we feel this way, particularly given that this sort of thing was considered, by forward-looking liberal reformists in the early part of the last century — people like Woodrow Wilson, George Bernard Shaw, Theodore Roosevelt, H.G. Wells, J.B.S. Haldane, Aldous Huxley, John Maynard Keynes, Harold Laski, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and many others — to be not only a good idea, but essential to the improvement of humanity’s lot.

So what accounts for the change of moral outlook here? Does it stand up under rational scrutiny?



  1. Kevin Kim says

    I’m all for sterilization, so I don’t understand the revulsion, either.

    But is there really that much revulsion? I suspect there are a lot of people who already embrace the idea of sterilization as punishment.

    Of course, with readily accessible cloning technology on the distant or not-so-distant horizon, future criminals might not worry about being sterilized when all they’ll need to do to reproduce is to offer some cells, from anywhere on their body, that contain intact, viable strands of DNA. We stand on the precipice of a world of “Mini Me”s.


    Posted June 24, 2008 at 11:42 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Kevin,

    Well, why do you suppose we don’t do it? You and I might not regard the subject with visceral aversion, but plainly many do.

    I suppose you’re right about cloning, though I don’t think we’re about to see home cloning kits anytime soon. I think the technology will remain beyond the reach of the average yegg or cutpurse for some time to come.

    How are your feet?

    Posted June 25, 2008 at 12:01 am | Permalink
  3. Kevin Kim says

    Feet are doing OK, thanks. Minor blistering, but nothing debilitating. Most of my foot-related aches are gone.


    Posted June 25, 2008 at 2:26 am | Permalink
  4. Just sterilization? But a vasectomy means never having to say you’re sorry. Do we reallly want to teach criminals even more irresponsibility? Certainly not! So . . . why not castration?

    I’m only asking, of course, not recommending.

    * * *

    Posted June 25, 2008 at 2:34 am | Permalink
  5. Kevin’s feet? They stink. I can virtually smell them from here.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted June 25, 2008 at 2:35 am | Permalink
  6. “I’m all for sterilization.”

    Ditto. I suppose in many cases people oppose it because they oppose eugenics, and in many cases such people oppose eugenics because they believe they are thereby opposing some faint whiff of Nazism, and if there is nowadays an easier and more effortless way to appear good than to oppose anything even faintly suggestive of Nazism, the spectre of which is always obligingly apparent upon being invoked, then I don’t know about it. As you intimate, eugenics was once widely advocated by progressives. Then again, some of them (e.g., H.G. Wells, G.B. Shaw, V. Woolf) were once in favour of mass-extermination of undesirables (the unsociable, the alien, the congenitally stupid, the disabled, the ideologically unfit, and the politically adversarial) as a quicker and more direct means of achieving the better society — with which Nazism was not at odds in practice, even if in ideological purpose. For some reason, however, the whiff of progressivism doesn’t seem to put as many people off. Damned good marketing, I’d call it, though of course it helps if you don’t lose wars.

    Posted June 25, 2008 at 7:13 am | Permalink
  7. Jeanie Oliver says

    There is much to suggest that the Nazis used our own eugenics model to build their own verson. I believe it was in a northern state, Vermont, that studies were inacted as Deogolwulf introduces that identified the families and their successive progeny to weed out the mentally disabled, transient, , also what the government called gypsy-like characteristics(couldn’t hold jobs, broke laws, sexual relations without marriage, ) They did offer criminals the option of being sterilized to cut down on their time in prison. Many took that option. The scary thing is that when this issue is brought up, most discussions tend to look at the male.
    However, many women were unwillingly sterilized in institutions and hospitals.
    Which should lead me to what this site is all about, commenting on an issue.
    I do not think that we have reached a point yet where we are responsible enough to enact a punishment retro to the crime. I fear that we would let ourselves devolve again to Vermont in the early 30’s and start gathering society’s “undesirables” off the street and using force.
    We have a culture right now too caught up in perfection for my peace of mind. Couples can already produce offspring , look at the future characteristics, mostly health wise, through the dna and choose which one to be impregnated with. What is to keep us from engineering “good character qualities” maps and incorporating that in the choice. Which leads me full circle. Creating a “better ” gene pool by deleting the undesirables is too dangerous.

    Posted June 25, 2008 at 9:34 am | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Good comments all (well, stinky feet aside). There’s much to explore here; I must sell this part of today, however, to my employer, and will weigh in later.

    Jeanie, we already do enact punishments retro to the crime; perhaps I’m not following you correctly. You are quite right, however, that the US took the early lead in eugenics; at one point during the 1930’s, an American academic lamented that the Germans were “beating us at our own game”.

    It is easy to see why a society might benefit from controlled breeding — the issue, it seems to me is curtailment of rights. But it is in the nature of a penal code that the convicted forfeit certain rights anyway; why not the right to reproduce?

    D., indeed the Nazis gave eugenics a bad name; the topic is now radioactive in political or academic discourse. Indeed, it was only after WWII that fascism acquired a bad name in this country; prior to that the Progressives and the Fascists were great admirers of one another, as their programs were in large part congruent.

    Posted June 25, 2008 at 10:23 am | Permalink
  9. JK says

    How about instead of just the simple emasculation (if it be the male) and then of course extend it to the occasional “transgressing Teacher” of adolescent boys we just send the, convicted of course, perp in for a surgical sex-change operation?

    Posted June 25, 2008 at 9:54 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    You’d have to write your Congressman about that one, JK.

    Posted June 25, 2008 at 11:57 pm | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    Creating a “better ” gene pool by deleting the undesirables is too dangerous.

    Of course, Jeanie, the eugenicist would argue that the real danger, in the long run, is not to do so.

    Posted June 25, 2008 at 11:59 pm | Permalink
  12. JK says

    Well actually Malcolm I already did. But in truth it was a Congressman from another state. He made the suggestion based upon an actual conviction. This piqued my interest for some reason and I went to the trouble of obtaining the trial’s transcript.

    I no longer have the transcript so I can only paraphrase but the perp testified, “I felt an overwhelming need to have, [er…]”

    Based on such testimony I thought, “well now, let’s give him one for his very own.”

    Posted June 26, 2008 at 7:01 am | Permalink

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