“Good Genes,” Amy Coney Barrett’s Nomination, and the Past—and Present—of Eugenics

Amy Coney Barrett—a judge who believes in authoritarianism over autonomy, appointed by a president who shamelessly shouts “good genes,” invoking the darkest chapters in our history—is an affront to our values.

"Good Genes": Amy Coney Barrett's Nomination Invokes the Past—and Present—of Eugenics
(Boston Red Cloaks / Jessica Steigerwald)

Good genes,” President Trump remarked as he gazed over at Amy Coney Barrett and her seven children, while nominating her to fill the seat formerly occupied by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It was a phrase he echoed at a nearly all-white rally last week in Bemidji, Minn., and for decades before.

In interviews throughout his fraught real estate career, Trump often mentioned his “good genes,” touting eugenics, a pseudoscientific theory of genetic superiority that took root in America, shaped Hitler’s race laws and led to Nazi Germany’s forced sterilization of “undesirables”—Jews to lesbians to epileptics.

I thought of eugenics two weeks ago when nurse Dawn Wooten filed a whistleblower complaint, alleging immigrant women at an ICE detention center in Irwin County, Ga., were subjected to coercive hysterectomies—with firsthand accounts from detainees continuing to emerge.

Among them, Pauline Binam, a Cameroon native, said Dr. Mahendra Amin was meant to excise ovarian cysts, but removed her Fallopian tube against her will. Amin—dubbed the “uterus collector”—denied the allegations, as did ICE. The ACLU and other groups are investigating the allegations.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that 16 more women came forward, alleging unnecessary and non-consensual surgeries that some say were painful or felt coerced into, brought to Dr. Amin in shackles, never understanding what was being done or why. The Irwin County correctional facility also reported an alarmingly high number of gynecological procedures for a facility of its size. 

These horrifying reports take on extra urgency with Ginsburg’s passing and the nomination of Barrett—a woman who has pledged her loyalty to People of Praise, an authoritarian religious group that promotes faith healing, speaking in tongues and prophecies over medicine, and where women, called “handmaidens” (until the success of the Netflix series based on Margaret Atwood’s book “The Handmaid’s Tale”), submit to the will of their male “leads,” who make decisions concerning their careers, marriage and, yes, their wombs.

Anti-Nazi rally in Eugene, Oregon. (David Geitgey Sierralupe / Flickr)

In the early 1970s, Ginsburg challenged a North Carolina eugenics program —which she argued was unconstitutional. Her client, Nial Ruth Cox, an unwed black teenage mom, was coerced into a tubal ligation or else her family’s welfare benefits would be terminated.

“Why do you keep worrying, keep asking questions?” her surgeon asked her, assuring her the procedure was reversible, while secretly listing her “an 18-year-old mentally deficient Negro girl,” and therefore worthy of permanent sterilization.

“Why do you keep asking questions?”

I had heard that throughout my life when I pressed my late mother about her elusive youth, and more recently, when I uncovered she was imprisoned in a Nazi women’s slave labor camp and began finding survivors. A woman named Fela spoke of beatings, hunger, humiliating sexual abuse and then something I wasn’t prepared to hear.

“She got such a shot!” she said referring to my mother. “They injected us all. We didn’t know what it was. Then we all stopped getting our periods.”

The words hit me like a bullet. It’s not that I didn’t know about Nazi experiments, but because my mom could have kids, I hadn’t gone there. I figured Fela hadn’t heard of amenorrhea or was ashamed of her infertility.


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Those who survived the Holocaust were committed to regenerating the Jewish nation, which meant those who were unable to get pregnant suffered a great burden, says Cooper Union history professor Atina Grossmann, author of “Reforming Sex.”

“Nazi policies of sterilization have been well documented at state health offices under the Department of Gene and Race Care,” Grossmann notes.

The sterilization law went into effect in 1934, resulting in some 320,000 Germans sterilized from 1934-1939 at some 1,100 state clinics. These barbaric procedures were carried out at 1,100 state clinics and later at Auschwitz and Ravensbrück, where Polish gentile women were designated “rabbits.”

But at a small women’s camp in a remote Sudeten town, why would the Nazis bother to sterilize Jewish girls smuggled in from Poland? Then I thought of the ICE detention center in sleepy Irwin County, Ga., where invisible hands decided the fates and fertilities of incarcerated young women, and proof was in short supply.

Those who courageously came forward were met with retaliation. Wooten claims she was demoted after speaking out and that most of her witnesses vanished without a trace. DHS tried to deport Pauline Binam, but Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) had her plane halted at O’Hare Airport and had her to testify at a Congressional subcommittee last week.

Others weren’t as lucky. A witness in a sexual abuse case at an ICE detention center in El Paso, Texas, was deported, reported The Texas Tribune and ProPublica.

“There is a pattern of burying the evidence,” says Naomi Steinberg, VP of policy and advocacy for HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society). “Medical records are being destroyed, there is an alleged refusal to test people for COVID at these centers, which point to medical neglect, violence and cruelty.”

My attempts to corroborate Fela’s allegations didn’t yield site specific proof, but led me to a cache of Nazi correspondence presented as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials.

Nuremberg Trials, 1945-46. (pingnews.com / CC PDM 1.0)

In a letter to Reichsfuehrer-SS Himmler, dated June 23, 1942, SS-Oberfuehrer Brack writes:

“According to my impression there are at least 2-3 million men and women well fit for work among the approx. 10 million European Jews. In consideration of the exceptional difficulties posed for us by the question of labor, I am of the opinion that these 2-3 million should in any case be taken out and kept alive. Of course this can only be done if they are in the same time rendered incapable of reproduction. I reported to you about a year ago that persons under my instruction have completed the necessary experiments for this purpose.”

Further correspondence detailed X-rays done on men and injections given to women.

In a letter to Himmler, dated June 7, 1943, Professor Clauberg wrote:

“One adequately trained physician … with perhaps 10 assistants will most likely be able to deal with several hundred, if not even 1,000 per day.”

One thousand sterilizations a day—that was the goal. These letters provided the basis of the definition of “war crimes and crimes against humanity.” Brack, a defendant at the Nuremberg tribunal, was subsequently hanged.

“We don’t have to turn everything into Nazi Germany to warrant shock and a response,” says Grossmann. “We have our own history of eugenics in the U.S., which inspired Nazi racial policy.”

The first American eugenics case that made it to the Supreme Court, Buck v. Bell in 1927, deemed the involuntary tubal ligation of a “feeble minded” unwed mother in Virginia beneficial to the “welfare of society.” Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., famously wrote: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

The ruling paved the way for 30,000 sterilizations to occur in 39 states, as well as the Immigration Act of 1924, which prevented Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany from settling here.

Involuntary sterilization was so pervasive among Black women in the South, it was dubbed the “Mississippi appendectomy,” according to the Boston Women’s Collective’s “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”

From the 1930s to the ‘70s, a third of Puerto Rican women had been subjected to “la operaciòn,” as they called the procedure, brought to light by Dr. Helen Rodriguez Trias, a Puerto-Rican New Yorker who founded the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse (CESA) and the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (CARASA). 

In 1970, Puerto Rico had the highest sterilization rate of anywhere in the world. That was also the year the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act passed, which targeted 25-50 percent of Native American women.

North Carolina revoked its eugenics program in time to declare RBG’s suit “moot,” but not every state has. Buck v. Bell lives on in Virginia. California, which rendered 200,000 of its citizens infertile, authorized the forced sterilization of 150 women inmates from 2006 to 2010.

It may be premature to refer to the cases in Irwin County as “mass sterilization,” says John Whitty, staff attorney with the Government Accountability Project representing Wooten. “Estimates range from 10 to 100, based on limited access to a small number of those in a position to discuss these matters. Already, the number is frightening enough.”

Or as HIAS’s Steinberg says: “I have a feeling this is the tip of the iceberg.”

In his closing statement at the Nuremberg Trials, prosecutor Telford Taylor referred to involuntary sterilization as a violation of “the most fundamental tenet of medical ethics and human decency.”

That moral imperative guided Ginsburg, who spoke of sterilization at her SCOTUS Senate confirmation hearing, stating “the importance of procreation to an individual’s autonomy.”

And that’s why we must oppose Barrett’s appointment to the highest court. A judge who believes in authoritarianism over autonomy, appointed by a president who shamelessly shouts “good genes,” invoking the darkest chapters in our history and known to silence witnesses and be less than forthcoming with the truth, is an affront to our values.


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About

Marisa Fox is a N.Y.-based freelance writer, producer and Women’s Media Center She Source whose features and editorials have appeared in The New York Times, Huffington Post, Haaretz, the Forward, Elle, Instyle, New York, among others. A former rock critic and women’s magazine editor, Fox is currently directing “My Underground Mother,” a documentary about her search for her late mother’s hidden Holocaust past. Follow her on Twitter: @marisafox.