More Than Love: Eugenics and the Future of Loving v. Virginia
More Th an Love: Eugenics and the Future of Loving v. Virginia
MORE THAN LOVE: EUGENICS
THE FUTURE OF LOVING V. VIRGINIA
Osagie K. Obasogie
Yale University Recommended Citation Osagie K. Obasogie, More Th an Love: Eugenics and the Future of Loving v. Virginia, 86 Fordham L. Rev. 2795 (2018). Available at: https://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/flr/vol86/iss6/14
1. 388 U.S. 1 (1967).
2. “In 2015, 17% of all U.S. newlyweds had a spouse of a different race or ethnicity,
marking more than a fivefold increase since 1967, when 3% of newlyweds were intermarried,
according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.” GRETCHEN
LIVINGSTON & ANNA BROWN, PEW RESEARCH CTR., INTERMARRIAGE IN THE U.S. 50 YEARS
AFTER LOVING V. VIRGINIA 5 (2017),
3. See, e.g., Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015). For a discussion of same-sex
marriage and Loving’s impact, see Ronald Turner, Same-Sex Marriage and Loving v.
Virginia: Analogy or Disanalogy?, 71 WASH. & LEE L. REV. ONLINE 264, 267–68 (2015).
In Loving, the Supreme Court was faced with a challenge to Virginia’s
Racial Integrity Act of 1924—an early twentieth century piece of state
legislation that prohibited marriage between whites and persons of color.4
The Act was part of a suite of state laws that had the specific purpose of
preventing interracial intimacy.5 This was not Virginia’s first attempt to stop
interracial marriage; such laws had been common for many years.6 But the
motivations of this particular Act were different: the Racial Integrity Act was
signed into law on the same day—March 20, 1924—that the state legislature
passed a separate act permitting the forced sterilization of disabled people.7
The lawfulness of Virginia’s forced sterilization law was upheld by the
Supreme Court three years later in Buck v. Bell,8 where the Court 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. The
principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover
cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.9
Virginia’s peculiar legislative shift toward racial integrity and sterilization
in 1924 draws attention to the idea that lawmakers at this time had concerns
that went beyond interracial sex and parentage. While they may initially
appear to be unrelated, laws that prevent certain racial groups from marrying
and allow for the sterilization of people with disabilities reflect a shared
ideology: eugenics. Popular in the early twentieth century, eugenics is the
idea that scientific and medical interventions could be used to weed out
people who had so-called defective lineages that were thought to lead to
crime, poverty, or disabilities—endowments that were perceived as
hindering the progress of any modern civilization.10 Eugenicists believed
that state involvement in reproductive practices could strengthen human
populations.11 Central to this ideology was the notion that differences in
social and health outcomes—whether a person is rich or poor, healthy or sick,
intelligent or intellectually limited—reflect the biological “fitness” of people
as inherited from their families. Interracial marriage, reproduction between
people with disabilities, and other related activities were seen as threats to
the state and its social ordering.12
These perceived “threats” were steeped in racism, classism, and ableism.
Eugenics promoted the idea that the preferred group (i.e., affluent
ablebodied whites) was in danger of having their ostensibly superior genes
weakened by the inferior and socially undesirable traits found in racial
minorities, disabled people, and social deviants. Note the language used
above in the Buck holding: “degenerate offspring,” preventing the
“manifestly unfit,” and parallels to “compulsory vaccination.”13 Eugenic
laws concerning racial integrity and forced sterilization during this period
were seen as key efforts by the state to promote public health.14
It is also important to note that while eugenics was popular from social,
political, and economic standpoints, it was utter pseudoscience without merit.
Many scientists and physicians (among other professionals in powerful
positions) embraced its ideals at the time.15 However, it would be a mistake
to think that this popularity was linked to scientific rigor when it was largely
driven by common social prejudices.16 Nevertheless, the appearance of
credibility given to eugenics—shifting racial discourse from a largely
religious and affective sentiment17 to one seemingly based in objective and
neutral scientific principles18—was key to the state being able to target
vulnerable groups with democratic precision in a postbellum era where equal
protection was allegedly the law of the land. While the principles behind
eugenics are without merit and quickly collapse under scrutiny, its ideology
and practice had a profound impact in the United States and across the globe
as a way to mobilize state power in a fashion that appeared to be in the
The early twentieth century was a moment of increasing immigration,
urbanization, and postbellum integration of former slaves into everyday life.
This diversification gave rise to the perception of impending demographic
warfare that could lead to inferior traits flooding the gene pool. It was
thought that new laws and public policies were needed to protect whiteness;
civilization would otherwise crumble.19 This informed several types of
practices that had the eugenic sensibilities of isolating social groups to
prevent the racial dilution of whites. “Negative eugenics” practices, such as
immigration restrictions, incarceration, and genocide, were common in many
nations across the globe. At the same time, other forms of “positive
eugenics,” which encouraged individuals with desirable traits to mate,
reproduce, and raise strong families, also rose to prominence.20 In short,
eugenics supporters worked under the guise of societal concern for public
health to encourage regulations and practices that promoted the reproduction
of those deemed fit and desirable while at the same time discouraging and
depressing the populations of stigmatized groups as seen in Loving and Buck.
In looking back at the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving, it is interesting
that a case noted for its affirmation of love contains little discussion about
this ideal. Apart from the name of the appellants and a handful of
unremarkable statements that marriage is a civil right, the Court did not
engage with the interpersonal nature of the dynamics implicated in the case.
Instead, the Loving decision was largely in conversation with the eugenic
qualities of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act.21 Rather than effusively
affirming the power of love, the Court noted that antimiscegenation laws
were unconstitutional since they are “measures designed to maintain White
At this fifty-year mark, it is important to celebrate and acknowledge the
impact that Loving had in facilitating multiculturalism and diversifying
family formation in America. But if we take the anti-eugenic aspects of
Loving seriously, we can begin to appreciate how the case might have
different lessons for us to learn at a moment when technology is changing
family formation and reproduction in profound ways.
New reproductive technologies such as embryo screening and gene editing
make a future with designer babies seem ever so close.23 These technologies
create the possibility that one day people may be able to choose the traits of
their children the way that they select options for a new car; preferences
regarding height, eye color, and perhaps even intelligence or musical ability
could become highly coveted features not unlike moonroofs and leather seats.
Some of these technologies have the capacity to impact the germ line—that
is, traits selected by parents that one child can pass on to future generations.24
If the idea of using science and technology to ingrain our social and
political preferences concerning physical appearance or other endowments
into the bodies of future generations sounds familiar, well, it should. As such,
the emergence of these powerful new technologies creates a profound need
for serious public discussion.25 Is the increased control over human
reproduction and the traits of future generations a reasonable extension of
human reproduction and ongoing efforts to improve the health of future
generations? Or is it a form of eugenics that we should avoid?
In conclusion, it is important to emphasize that Loving is an outstanding
achievement in the pursuit of social justice and greater inclusion in our
society. But as we look forward, it is also important for us to appreciate how
the anti-eugenic sensibilities in the decision might guide law and society in
facing challenges connected to new developments in reproductive and
genetic technologies. These developments have the potential to take us back
down a dangerous path to a time where science and medicine were used to
filter out those with disfavored traits in the name of public health and where
social and health disparities were thought to be linked to inherent group
differences. Apart from its popular narrative invoking notions of romantic
love, Loving and its strong stance against eugenics can be instructive for how
we think about the state’s involvement in regulating new technologies that
might facilitate the same eugenic outcomes that the Court in Loving sought
4. See Loving , 388 U.S at 4-5.
5. VA. CODE ANN. §§ 20 -50 to - 60 ( 1950 ) (repealed in 1968 ).
6. See generally A. Leon Higginbotham , Jr. & Barbara K. Kopytoff , Racial Purity and Interracial Sex in the Law of Colonial and Antebellum Virginia , 77 GEO. L.J. 1967 ( 1989 ) (discussing the evolution of the concepts of racial purity, interracial sex, and interracial marriage in colonial and antebellum Virginia) .
7. See Act of March 20 , 1924 , ch. 394 , 1924 Va. Acts 569-70 (repealed 1974 ); Act of March 20 , 1924 , ch. 371 , 1924 Va. Acts 534 (repealed 1968 ).
8. 274 U.S. 200 ( 1927 ).
9. Id. at 207 (citation omitted).
10. See Hannah Lou, Eugenics Then and Now: Constitutional Limits on the Use of Reproductive Screening Technologies , 42 HASTINGS CONST. L .Q. 393 , 394 - 96 ( 2015 ).
11. See Paul A. Lombardo, Medicine, Eugenics, and the Supreme Court: From Coercive Sterilization to Reproductive Freedom, 13 J. CONTEMP. HEALTH L. & POL 'Y 1, 2 - 6 ( 1996 ).
12. Id . at 5-6.
13. Buck , 274 U.S. at 207.
14. Lombardo , supra note 11, at 20.
15. Id . at 9-12.
16. Legal historian Paul A. Lombardo notes: An investigation of the people who laid the groundwork for Virginia's miscegenation law reveals that the pseudo-science of eugenics was a convenient facade used by men whose personal prejudices on social issues preceded any “scientific theory.” Stated more bluntly, the true motive behind the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 was the maintenance of white supremacy and black economic and social inferiority-racism, pure and simple. It was an accident of history that eugenic theory reached its peak of acceptability in 1924 so as to be available as a respectable veneer with which to cover ancient prejudice . Paul A. Lombardo, Miscegenation, Eugenics, and Racism: Historical Footnotes to Loving v. Virginia , 21 U.C. DAVIS L. REV. 421 , 425 ( 1988 ).
17. See generally TERENCE KEEL, DIVINE VARIATIONS: HOW CHRISTIAN THOUGHT BECAME RACIAL SCIENCE ( 2018 ) (arguing that Christian ideas about creation, ancestry, and universalism helped to form the basis of modern scientific accounts of human diversity).
18. See generally EDWIN BLACK, WAR AGAINST THE WEAK: EUGENICS AND AMERICA'S CAMPAIGN TO CREATE A MASTER RACE ( 2003 ) (discussing the evolution of the American eugenics movement); DANIEL J. KEVLES, IN THE NAME OF EUGENICS: GENETICS AND THE USES OF HUMAN HEREDITY ( 1985 ) (exploring the history of the eugenics movement and its impact on modern society ).
19. See generally BLACK , supra note 18; KEVLES, supra note 18.
20. See generally Alexandra Minna Stern, Making Better Babies: Public Health and Race Betterment in Indiana, 1920-1935, 92 AM. J. PUB. HEALTH 742 ( 2002 ) (discussing the rural Indiana contests that brought public health, “race betterment,” and animal breeding together through “Better Babies Contests”); Mark Landler, Results of Secret Nazi Breeding Program: Ordinary Folks , N.Y. TIMES ( Nov . 7, 2006 ), http://www.nytimes.com/ 2006 /11/07/world/ europe/07nazi.html [perma.cc/NL2S-THFT].
21. See Loving v. Virginia , 388 U.S. 1 , 4 ( 1967 ). While the Court in Loving did not expressly discuss the eugenics movement as giving rise to the antimiscegenation law, the Court did note that the law was passed during a “period of extreme nativism which followed the end of the First World War .” Id. at 6. This nativism was linked to the eugenics movement because the deep skepticism of foreigners was also tied to controlling reproductive practices in a domestic capacity to promote white supremacy and fend off any perceived demographic decline that might make the United States noncompetitive in global affairs. Tied closely to this nativism was the eugenic rearticulation of old entrenched biases that were not only skeptical of foreigners but deeply invested in controlling reproduction as a means of preserving power for a particular slice of white America .
22. Loving , 388 U.S. at 11. The Loving Court notes , in full, that [t] here is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification. The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their own justification, as measures designed to maintain White Supremacy . We have consistently denied the constitutionality of measures which restrict the rights of citizens on account of race. There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause . Id. at 11-12.
23. See generally Jennifer A. Doudna & Emmanuelle Charpentier, The New Frontier of Genome Engineering with CRISPR-Cas9, 346 SCIENCE 1077 ( 2014 ) (describing how CRISPR-Cas9 functions and analyzing its ability to potentially correct genetic mutations responsible for inherited disorders ).
24. See Edward Lanphier et al., Don't Edit the Human Germ Line , 519 NATURE 410, 411 ( 2015 ).
25. See generally OSAGIE K. OBASOGIE & MARCY DARNOVSKY , BEYOND BIOETHICS : TOWARD A NEW BIOPOLITICS ( 2018 ) (discussing how emerging bioethical issues affect race, gender, class, disability, privacy, and notions of democracy).