Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Eugenics Comes to the Movies

The New England Journal of Medicine article entitled, "The Black Stork: Eugenics and the death of “defective” babies in American medicine and motion pictures since 1915,"by Barron H. Lerner, M.D: A physician helps a suffering patient die. Newspapers across the country cover the story, engendering a nationwide debate over whether the doctor is a murderer or a humanitarian.

These events have a modern ring, but they actually occurred in 1915. Long before Jack Kevorkian there was Harry Haiselden, a Chicago physician and eugenicist who not only let a baby with severe disabilities die, but also wrote and starred in a movie to publicize the need to withhold aggressive treatment from all such “defective” babies. In this excellent book, Martin Pernick has resurrected the long-forgotten story of the Bollinger baby, Haiselden, and his movie, which was entitled The Black Stork. In so doing, Pernick gives us an essential historical perspective on two pressing issues: the possible abuses of new forms of genetic technology and physician-assisted suicide.
Haiselden's decision to forgo lifesaving surgery on the Bollinger baby, who was born with multiple physical anomalies, was made at the pinnacle of the eugenics movement in early-20th-century America. By limiting the reproduction of so-called unfit populations, eugenicists hoped to prevent the propagation of traits such as mental retardation and criminality, which they believed were genetically transmitted. In allowing or facilitating the death of the Bollinger baby and several other infants born with various deformities, Haiselden emphasized the eugenic goal of building a more perfect race of Americans.

Dr. Harry Haiselden

Although other historians have examined the eugenics movement, Pernick's book breaks important new ground. Most notably, he demonstrates how an understanding of eugenics requires an analysis not only of the writings of its professional advocates but also of the popular response to eugenic thought. Quite helpful here is Pernick's analysis of The Black Stork and other films of the era that either promoted or mocked eugenic doctrines. This aspect of the book was clearly a labor of love for Pernick, who found the only remaining viewable print of The Black Stork in a film collector's garage. By showing how eugenics was portrayed in the media and on film, Pernick gives a much more nuanced treatment of the topic than previous authors. For example, he demonstrates that many eugenicists believed that heredity was determined by both one's genetic inheritance and one's environment, and he shows how movies such as The Black Stork actually succeeded in humanizing the “defectives” they were designed to pillory.

There is little to criticize in Pernick's book. It is clearly written and copiously referenced. One minor point is that he has chosen to leave his actual analysis of the movie The Black Stork (and a wonderful collection of still photographs from the film) until the end of the book. Since he discusses the film throughout the book, it is somewhat confusing to learn the plot's details only at the book's conclusion.
If Pernick has provided a subtle reading of the popular response to eugenics and euthanasia in the 1910s, he ultimately is highly critical of a mind-set that could claim, as Haiselden did, that “horrid semi-humans drag themselves along all of our streets” and that shared numerous concepts and images with Nazism. Pernick's final chapter is an eloquent discussion of the cautionary tale that Haiselden's story represents. No matter how sophisticated genetic or medical techniques become, they can never provide truly objective data. Medical decision making will continue to be infused with value judgments, which we must constantly scrutinize.

(source: New England Journal of Medicine, by Barron H. Lerner, M.D., Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, NY 10032, 15 August 1996)


The Black Stork: Eugenics and the death of “defective” babies in American medicine and motion pictures since 1915, by Martin S. Pernick. 295 pp. New York, Oxford University Press, 1996.
$29.95. ISBN: 0-19-507731-8

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