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Description - In Reckless Hands by Victoria F. Nourse

In the 1920s and 1930s, thousands of men and women were sterilized at asylums and prisons across America. Believing that criminality and mental illness were inherited, state legislatures passed laws calling for the sterilization of "habitual criminals" and the "feebleminded." But in 1936, inmates at Oklahoma's McAlester prison refused to cooperate; a man named Jack Skinner was the first to come to trial. A colorful and heroic cast of characters-from the inmates themselves to their devoted, self-taught lawyer-would fight the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Only after Americans learned the extent of another large-scale eugenics project-in Nazi Germany-would the inmates triumph. Combining engrossing narrative with sharp legal analysis, Victoria F. Nourse explains the consequences of this landmark decision, still vital today-and reveals the stories of these forgotten men and women who fought for human dignity and the basic right to have a family.

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Book Details

ISBN: 9780393065299
ISBN-10: 0393065294
Format: Hardback
(244mm x 165mm x 25mm)
Pages: 256
Imprint: WW Norton & Co
Publisher: WW Norton & Co
Publish Date: 5-Sep-2008
Country of Publication: United States

Book Reviews - In Reckless Hands by Victoria F. Nourse

US Kirkus Review » Memorable account of a landmark case that stymied the practice of forced sterilization.The original 1934 plaintiffs were three men jailed in Oklahoma's McAlester prison; each had at least three felony convictions, which made them eligible for sterilization under the state's broad 1933 law. Similar laws around the country drew their rationale from the pseudo-science of eugenics, which claimed that insanity, feeble-mindedness, promiscuity and criminality were inherited traits. Pseudonymous, frequently flawed family studies in the late 19th- and early-20th century had made names like Jukes and Kallikak synonyms for generations of imbeciles and criminals. Two crusading Oklahoma lawyers took the McAlester inmates' case and managed to delay implementation of the law as they lost appeal after appeal to higher courts - losses that occasioned prison riots and breakouts. At the 11th hour, two additional lawyers filed for consideration of Skinner v. Oklahoma by the U.S. Supreme Court. By that time, in late 1941, the court was headed by Harlan Stone and included Roosevelt appointees Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black and William O. Douglas. The world was at war, and even the self-righteous who saw eugenics as the path to society's betterment were having second thoughts in light of Nazi atrocities. Douglas wrote in the deciding opinion on June 1, 1942, that "in reckless hands," entire "races or types" might "wither and disappear." Moreover, the law violated equal protection because it did not mandate sterilization for embezzlers or tax cheats (non-felons). Perhaps the most visionary language, however, came in the justice's reference to procreation as "an area of human rights." In a nuanced discourse, Nourse (Criminal and Constitutional Law/Univ. of Wisconsin) recounts how legal thinking concerning race, liberty, constitutionality, equal protection and civil rights has changed dramatically since Skinner. However, she warns, society may once again be looking for "the 'natural' secret to criminal tendencies," this time in the form of bad genes.A legal tale that reads like a cliffhanger. (Kirkus Reviews)

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Author Biography - Victoria F. Nourse

Victoria F. Nourse received her JD degree from the University of California, Berkeley. Currently the Burrus-Bascom Professor of Criminal and Constitutional Law at the University of Wisconsin, she lives in Shorewood, Wisconsin.