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An image of God: The Catholic Struggle with Eugenics.

AN IMAGE OF GOD: The Catholic Struggle with Eugenics by Sharon M. Leon. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2013. 226 pages. Hardcover; $45.00. ISBN: 9780226038988.

This book offers a detailed account of how American Catholics emerged as the fiercest opponents of sexual sterilization over the course of the first half of the twentieth century. Sharon Leon offers a close reading of texts produced by high-ranking American Catholics in concert with the texts of leading local eugenicists to trace a complicated relationship that at moments overlapped, but over time evolved into a contentious and deeply divided set of views over the sanctity of human life and its reproduction. It provides historians of medicine, eugenics, and Catholicism with a rich study of these high-level debates.

Leon concentrates on some of the leading figures in these discussions and covers nearly four decades of its discourse. In doing so, her study focuses on the period in American history when eugenics and sterilization have been presumed to be in their ascendency. Many scholars suggest that after the Second World War, the discussions changed dramatically, with the concurrent international attention to Nazi eugenics and human experiments, and a contemporary shift in discourse surrounding voluntary birth control, which dramatically altered the course of eugenics. Although historians of medicine such as Rebecca Kluchin, Wendy Kline, and Johanna Schoen have begun to problematize this chronological framing by demonstrating that eugenics programs had a much longer reach and maintained a more complicated relationship with both medical experimentation and birth control, Leon adheres to this periodization. The result is an in-depth look at how Catholic thinkers positioned themselves against eugenicists, and how Catholicism wrestled with eugenic science for the upper hand in moral authority over the modern family.

At its core, this book is an exploration of the battleground between eugenic reformers who harnessed science (however pseudo or incomplete it was) in their efforts to shape American society, and Catholics, who expressed religious and theological explanations for human behavior, and later politically reinserted the church into the domain of welfare and charity. Leon points out, however, that both Catholics and eugenicists borrowed interpretations and strategies from one another as they attempted to shore up support for their positions. At times, this jockeying meant that eugenicists shared or even borrowed perspectives from Catholics, namely support for pronatalism and positive eugenics. Conversely, while Catholics agreed on elements of pronatalism, in practice (whether or not this was consistent with papal doctrine), some even agreed in principle with the need to intervene on issues of mental deficiency and later on anti-miscegenation laws. While the differences are evident, Leon is careful to draw attention to more subtle points of convergence that complicate our understanding of this contested past, and remind us of the overarching issues that brought these groups into the same arena.

The subtext behind this contest is less explicit. It appears that while the eugenicists and Catholics squared off over the subjects of eugenics and sterilization, the state loomed large in this wrestling match. Eugenicists often appeared to have the upper hand in working with the state to design eugenic laws, while Catholics, in Leon's account, resented what appeared to be an encroaching state that increasingly intervened in American lives, whether on points of secular marriages, welfare, or moral guidance regarding family life. The underlying wave of secularization brought Catholics together in defense of their place in American society. The state, which is more often an implicit player in this account, created another rallying point for Catholics, who appealed to a particular feature of Americanism that decried the paternalism of a secular state.

By paying close attention to the high-level discussions, the voices and actions of lay people-whether patients or parishioners--are largely absent. The nuances in discourse are very well established, but the local interpretations of that advice as it made its way into civil society are less clear. Did families, for instance, adopt one interpretation universally, or did they select pieces from the eugenicists and Catholics as it suited their individual circumstances?

This book addresses a considerable gap in the literature on eugenics, and provides compelling evidence to support the oft-made claim that Catholics were the primary opponents to eugenics; Leon explains why. She delves into the murky science of heredity that shifted under the weight of religion and failed to prove that disability and feeblemindedness were indeed threatening, subhuman categories. Catholics, she shows, did not combat this view with religion alone, but engaged in the science of eugenics and joined intellectuals in their pursuit of understanding degeneracy. Only after reasoned consideration did Catholics emerge firmly against the popular wave of support for more interventionist approaches to designing families. This is not, therefore, a simple story of religion triumphing over science, but rather one of reason over unreason, and in this case, conservatism over change.

Reviewed by Erika Dyck, Associate Professor and Tier 2 Canada Research Chair, Medical History in the Department of History at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK S7N 5B5.
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Author:Dyck, Erika
Publication:Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2015
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