REVIEW / Sterilisation - and it's all for a good cause

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The Independent Culture
'THREE generations of imbeciles is enough,' said Oliver Wendell Holmes, the great American jurist, in a famous Supreme Court ruling. He had decided that it was constitutionally legal for states to sterilise anyone they decided was eugenically undesirable. 'The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination,' he elaborated, 'is broad enough to cover cutting the fallopian tubes.' In other words, the general health of society could be protected at the expense of the rights of individuals, a dangerously plausible argument that, as Secret History (C4) reminded you, seduced not a few liberal thinkers in the first half of this century.

Holmes's judgement was on the case of Carrie Buck, a poor white girl born to a poor white mother. After being raped by a member of the family that fostered her, she became pregnant and was sent in disgrace to the Lynchburg Colony, a state institution first set up as a colony for epileptics. There she encountered Dr Priddy, an enthusiastic social engineer whose programme of sterilisations had been blocked by a law suit. With the assistance of local politicians and a biologist called Harry Laughlin, who had drafted a law on social sterilisation, they pushed the case of Carrie Buck through to the Supreme Court, hoping to set a precedent that would allow them to continue their work. The expert witness who reported on Carrie's mental state was Laughlin himself, who had never met or talked to his subject. 'These people,' he wrote, 'belong to the shiftless, ignorant, worthless class of antisocial whites of the South.' Holmes agreed, unleashing programmes of sterilisation in many states.

'The Lynchburg Story' concentrated on Virginia and on the attempt by the American Civil Liberties Union to obtain some redress for those so casually violated. It was a powerful tale and, like last week's film on black wartime pilots, a distinguished contribution to social archaeology - a growing field on television. It's difficult to criticise films that have both their hearts and their minds in the right places, as this did, but I am beginning to wonder whether the relative simplicity of showing how bad things were in the past might not seduce film-makers away from current difficulties.

Such films don't set out to congratulate contemporary society for having grown out of its old bad habits, but it is very hard to prevent a hint of that seeping in. 'Thank God, we've changed,' you think, as discredited attitudes and ancient prejudices are paraded for your contempt. But a programme on eugenics, in particular, reminded you that bad ideas almost always have children.

Secret History recognised this by detailing the way in which the Nazis looked to America for an example in drawing up their own eugenics programme; a more ambitious programme might have found a way to include the fact that, in the last few years, some American states have proposed linking welfare payments to temporary sterilisation, through implanted contraceptives. That's a less tidy and comforting irony than the one the film itself left you with - that Laughlin, the architect of this awful policy, later succumbed to epilepsy himself.

'That is the action of a kind and generous person . . .' says an irascible editor in Nelson's Column (BBC1), before waiting a beat and shouting, 'But you are a journalist]' NUJ policy forbids me from laughing at such jokes and in truth I wasn't in much danger of breaking union rules at that point. But as a whole the first episode of this new sitcom was rather engaging, employing John Gordon Sinclair as a mildly unscrupulous reporter for a local paper.

The comedy lies more in clever plot- contrivance than in the language (it opened with a slapstick set-piece in which a dull interview with a modeller ends up with a Mr Whippy van in the boating lake and the headline 'Crash driver claims he was attacked by war plane') but there is a nice streak of surreal invention to it and the performances are likeable enough to pull you over the lulls.