Is An Objection on Religious Grounds Enough?

Rev. Robert Fleischmann, National Director of Christian Life Resources

“The path of least resistance is the path of the loser.”
[attributed to H.G. Wells, 1866-1946]

We have done it before, and it appears we are poised to do it again. The recent government mandate requiring even religious agencies to cover the cost of abortifacient drugs as birth control under the new health care plan has caused Christians to line up to protect their consciences. Is that enough? Let’s not forget this important lesson from history:

Purifying the Race – Eugenics

In 1865 Sir Francis Galton of Britain encouraged purification of the race through careful breeding. His message of eugenics resonated with the world. As the industrial age brought an increased level of corporate competitiveness it became important to maintain the best and brightest stock.

Although eugenics began in Britain, the United States gave the movement credibility. It attracted the attention of such notable public figures as Katharine McCormick (heir of the International Harvester fortune), Andrew Carnegie (steel magnate), John D. Rockefeller (Standard Oil), J. Harvey (Kellogg’s), Mary Williamson Averell (Union and Southern Pacific Railroads), Alexis Carrel (inventor of the heart pump), and Charles Lindberg (aviator).

These early eugenics advocates did not favor the extreme measures eventually used by Nazi Germany, yet their advocacy lacked the foresight in knowing where eugenics would go.

Compulsory Sterilization

A particular focus of the eugenics movement involved a reduction in human reproduction among those who might pass on the maladies of mental illness, deafness, blindness, epilepsy, and physical deformities. Counseling was not enough – more drastic measures were deemed necessary. Both Michigan (1897) and Pennsylvania (1905) tried but failed to pass compulsory sterilization laws. In 1907, however, Indiana became the first state to mandate sterilization of those deemed unfit to reproduce.

In 1912 the First International Congress of Eugenics convened in London. By 1914 a dozen states had already passed some sort of sterilization law. In that year the United States Eugenics Record Office drafted the “Model Eugenical Sterilization Law” to authorize sterilization of the “socially inadequate” – people supported in institutions or “maintained wholly or in part by public expense.”

Nine years later (in 1921), the Second International Eugenics Congress was held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. An early advocate of compulsory sterilization of the deaf was Alexander Graham Bell, who was named honorary president of the Second Congress.

Then the state of Virginia legalized compulsory sterilization in 1924. Carrie Buck, the 17-year-old daughter of an institutionalized mother, had delivered a child outside of marriage and was erroneously presumed to have inherited the “feeblemindedness” of her mother. Carrie Buck became the subject of a court challenge that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court ruled against Carrie Buck in Buck v. Bell (1927), making compulsory sterilization permissible. In his written opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. stated, “It is better for all the world, 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.” Carrie was later forcibly sterilized.

Interest in race purification reached deep into urban and rural communities. In 1925, Kansas began holding “fittest family” contests at state and county fairs. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, embraced eugenics as a means of controlling the breeding of society’s undesirables. An improved stock of people meant a healthier society.

In 1932 a Third International Eugenics Congress was again held in New York. Speakers promoted: birth “selection” over birth control, scrutiny and deportation of immigrants suspected of carrying “inadmissible traits” and the overall warning of doom on civilization as a whole if eugenic measures were not implemented.

The Next Step for Eugenics

Germany suffered a humiliating defeat in World War I. Extreme nationalism found a comfortable breeding ground in Germany as the nation lamented its loss and looked to the future.

Germans objected to the Treaty of Versailles which demanded huge reparations from their country for its role in World War I. Under the treaty’s terms, Germany was made to compensate the Allied countries for war damages in the amount of 132 billion marks (about $131.4 billion by 1921 standards or $442 billion by 2012 standards). That debt would not be fully paid until October of 2010 – 89 years later.

When the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazis) formed in 1920 it resonated with the German people. The Nazi Party promoted the myth that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” (Dolchstoßlegende) by civilians on the home front. It depicted the Weimar Republic (the form of government established in Germany at the conclusion of World War I) as “a morass of corruption, degeneracy, national humiliation, ruthless persecution of the honest ‘national opposition’ – fourteen years of rule by Jews, Marxists and ‘cultural Bolsheviks.’”

In January 1933 Adolf Hitler emerged as the newly-appointed German chancellor. Change would come quickly.

Germany was poised to begin compulsory sterilization. America crossed that bridge in 1907 and by 1933, 31 of the 48 states had passed sterilization laws. Germany learned about forced sterilization of the infirm from the United States and intended to use it.

Law for the Prevention of Genetically-Diseased Offspring –
Stated “any person suffering from a hereditary disease may be rendered
incapable of procreation by means of a surgical operation (sterilization),
if the experience of medical science shows that it is highly probable that
his descendants would suffer from some serious physical or mental
hereditary defect.” The new law mandated sterilization in instances
of: 1) heritable feeblemindedness, 2) schizophrenia, 3) manic-depressive
illness, 4) heritable epilepsy, 5) heritable Huntington’s chorea, 6)
heritable blindness, 7) heritable deafness, 8) severe physical deformity,
and 9) severe alcoholism. (July 14, 1933)

Just as in the United States, Germany’s forced sterilization policy was met with strong and consistent resistance – from the Roman Catholic Church.

Conscientious Objection
In Roman Catholic theology, abstinence is considered the most holy state for human beings. Therefore, the Church historically rejects artificial forms of birth control, including sterilization. Adolf Hitler, a Roman Catholic, faced opposition from his own denomination. While Protestants failed to share the Catholic’s public denunciation of sterilization, Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer chronicled the frustrating attempts in activating church leaders to respond to the Nazis’ practices.

The Catholic objection prevailed on the compulsory sterilization policy, and a compromise was reached – in the form of a “conscientious objection” provision. Germany exempted Roman Catholic judges from presiding over hereditary health courts and its surgeons from performing sterilizations. In addition, Roman Catholic citizens were charged with caring for their own “defective” family members.

After the Catholic Church received conscientious objector status, Germany’s sterilization plan took off. To culturally, nationally and economically restore their country’s people, Germany felt the next logical step involved the prevention of the breeding of “undesirables.” Follow the logic to its horrific conclusion:

Law Against Dangerous Habitual Criminals –
Allowed for the indefinite imprisonment of “habitual criminals”
and castration of sex offenders. (November 24, 1933)

Reich Citizenship Law –
Established a citizen as “that subject only who is of German
or kindred blood and who, through his conduct, shows
that he is both desirous and fit to serve the German people
and Reich faithfully.” (September 15, 1935)

Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor –
Prohibited marriage between German citizens and those of the
Jewish race. (September 15, 1935)

Law to Protect the Genetic Health of the German People
(Healthy Marriage Law) –

Outlawed marriage if one of the partners had a dangerous
infectious disease, suffered from mental illness or carried a
genetic disease, which might also have called for sterilization.
(October 26, 1935)

First Executive Order on the Reich Citizenship Law –
Clarified the purity of genealogy necessary to qualify as a
German citizen. (November 14, 1935)

Beginning in January of 1934 and into 1939, about 350,000-375,000 sterilizations were performed in Germany under the new law – 37% were voluntary, 39% were involuntary, and 29% were non-voluntary (consent granted by guardian or parent).

Cost Savings in Death
In 1920 Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche wrote the book, “Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life.” The logic for purification of the race justified forced sterilization of those people deemed unworthy to reproduce. That logic progressed to the next level.

The Nazi initiative to actively euthanize so-called “worthless” German citizens was set to begin. It became known by the code, Operation T4, from the street address of the headquarters of the German government agency, The Charitable Foundation for Curative and Institutional Care.

When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, the T4 program officially – though subversively – went into effect. After only two years, the program officially concluded at the cost of at least 70,253 deaths. By then, the war-distracted nation became well-entrenched with the notion that some lives were better not lived.

By the end of World War II Germany’s logic to purify the race resulted in the deaths of nearly six million people – beginning with the infirm and unstable and progressing towards annihilation of entire classes and races of people.

What Does This Mean?
The Roman Catholic Church initially slowed progress of Germany’s compulsory sterilization policy, but once granted exemption status, church officials backed off. The program then moved forward, serving as a forerunner to Nazi Germany’s subsequent genocidal practices. To the credit of the Roman Catholic Church there were some agencies that objected to Germany’s eugenics programs. But, why did it take the cruel murder of nearly six million people before these despicable practices came to a halt?

In today’s world, when our government demands even religious agencies to pay for birth control through our health plans – even if some forms of birth control cause abortion, what is our objection? An appeal to allow for a “conscientious objection” is the path presently advocated by most religious agencies. Such an exemption is the easy route. Once the debate is over and church agencies get their objection provision, will that really be enough?

This is not the government mandating the singular use of a Bible translation or insisting on payment of church property taxes. This is the government saying all of us as a nation must pay for birth control (abortifacient or otherwise) because a pregnancy is categorized as a preventable and presumably treatable “disease.” It is grouped together with breast exams and colonoscopies.

It is too easy to wiggle out of this situation with some sort of conscientious objection clause. What about the unborn children who will still die once this provision is enforced? Will Christians still bask in their exemption?

You and I are not supposed to sin. We do not take the lives of unborn children. But we are also tasked to care for others and speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. Religious agencies may finagle a way to exempt themselves from paying for abortifacients as part of their insurance premiums, but this does not mean we win. Quite the contrary. History unfortunately shows that we tend to follow the path of least resistance – to the peril of those left behind.

There is a place for government to respect the religious convictions of people. But if the conscience is only sensitive about oneself and not about others, then we fail miserably.

If we who know better do not speak up – who will? Don’t settle for the easy way out. This provision of the national health care plan is flawed in its essence, and we need to speak against it.


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