On November 12, 1915, a now largely forgotten but then famous case catapulted eugenics into the public eye. In Chicago’s German-American Hospital, a severely deformed baby boy was born to the Bollinger family. The surgeon who headed the hospital staff, Dr. Harry J. Haiselden, convinced the mother not to treat the child, but to let it die. Haiselden revealed that he had let a number of “defectives” die during the preceding decade, and that he would continue to do so. All this was widely reported by the newspapers. His decision was backed by public figures such as Clarence Darrow and Helen Keller. The courts did not indict him; neither did the media. Subsequently he wrote and starred in a movie concerning this incident. In the movie, entitled “The Black Stork,” Haiselden advocated the protection of society from “defectives.” It was a kind of morality play based on the dangers of allowing mentally or physically defective children live because of the likely possibility that they might become criminals. The movie was shown in theaters from 1916 to 1920. After 1918 it appeared under the title Are You Fit to Marry ? It was revised and re-released in 1927. It continued to be shown in small theaters and traveling road shows until perhaps as late as 1942.
During the early 20th Century, partly due to the famous case portrayed in “The Black Stork” and partly due to other “eugenic movies” of the time, the eugenics movement made enormous gains in public approval and support in the United States. It was endorsed by the national media, practiced by medical science, given carte blanche by the courts, and defended by the leading intellectuals of the day.
Initially the eugenics movement believed the defective person was unfit to reproduce but should not be killed. Segregation or sterilization of the unfit became the answer. The hope was that medicine or surgery (even or tonsillectomy or adenoidectomy!) could effect cure. Then “allowing to die” or “twilight sleep” (deep and continuous sedation) was advanced as a humanitarian way to eliminate defectives. Finally killing (in the form of abortion) was advocated to save the parents from suffering. As Helen Keller put it, “Our puny sentimentalism has caused us to forget that a human life is sacred only when it may be of some use to itself and to the world.” Doctor Haiselden insisted that he let defectives die “because he loved them.” He emphasized the need to protect society from what he termed “lives of no value.” He maintained that “by the weeding out of our undesirables, we decrease their burden and ours.” Clarence Darrow said we should: “Chloroform unfit children. Show them the same mercy that is shown beasts that are no longer fit to live.” Haiselden warned that: “Cold hard logic…cannot be overturned by false and sickly sentiment.”http://www.cmda.org/wcm/CMDA/Issues2/Other1/Genetics1/Ethics_Statements11/A_History_of_Eugenic.aspx