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Letters | 5-1-14

May 1, 2014 - 12:05am

Objection to using the word ‘imbecile’

I do not know Rep. Faye Hanohano, nor do I live in her district. I probably would not vote for her even if I had the opportunity to do so. However, reader Tom Munden, in his use of the word “imbecile” for Hanohano, is using a word that makes me shudder, given the history behind that term. An “imbecile” is a term that can be defined as someone whose IQ is between 21 to 50, hence technically putting an “imbecile” between a “moron” and an “idiot.”

Within the last century, people who were, or were believed to be, morons, imbeciles or idiots, could be and often were involuntarily sterilized. The State of Virginia’s law on sterilizing the “feeble-minded” was upheld by the Supreme Court in the 1927 case of Buck v. Bell. In writing for the 8-1 majority in that case, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously stated, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” As a result of this ruling, many states either developed sterilization laws, or implemented ones already on the books. Some 60,000 Americans were involuntarily sterilized under these laws. While most states have since rescinded such laws, the Supreme Court has never reversed Buck v. Bell.

Bioethicist Paul Lombardo, in his book “Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell” (2008) has made a convincing case that Carrie Buck, her mother and her daughter were all of average intelligence, and that Carrie Buck was sterilized because some in power disapproved of her behavior.

“Imbecile” recalls a period of our history — not totally past — when racism and intolerance were rampant in our culture. It is not a word to be used lightly. Besides, my mother taught me never to say nasty things about people, advice I might give to both Munden and Hanohano.

Grace Miller


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