• Most people have heard of Buck v. Bell (1927), in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled lawful a Virginia statute permitting sterilization of the “unfit.” Many know the infamous line of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s ruling: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Many people do not know, however, the sentence that immediately precedes it: “The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination (Jacobson v. Massachusetts ) is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.” There was a direct connection, at least in the minds of the Supreme Court justices, between compulsory vaccination and compulsory sterilization.
• This connection should give us pause in our present situation, when there is a lot of talk about the need for vaccine mandates for COVID-19. This is a disease which has a >99% survival rate for people under 70 years old (the survival rate is 94.6% for those over 70). Thus, while it seems to make a great deal of sense for those older than 70 and those with exacerbating conditions to receive the vaccine, what are we to say about the tremendous pressure, exerted by both public and private authorities, for absolutely everyone to get vaccinated—even children, upon whom COVID-19 seems rarely to have any effect whatsoever?
• The Church, too, is not unaffected by the present trend. Catholics, and Catholic institutions in particular, are also exerting pressure for universal vaccination. But not only does this program of complete vaccination lack a clear scientific basis, as just noted, exerting pressure in the way it requires arguably looks very much like what is at its core an anti-Christian attempt to control.
• The Buck v. Bell case ushered in an era of state-backed eugenical programs in the United States, leading to things like the North Carolina Eugenics Board, which routinely sterilized minorities and poor people; the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which experimented upon black men; and anti-miscegenation laws, which, one supposes, were intended to protect people from themselves.
• We’d like to think we are far beyond such horrors, but I very much doubt it. In some sense, we can now exert violent control over human bodies and lives both more broadly and more hiddenly, thanks to the rise of modern technology. And even if we insist that we are beyond temptation here, do we want to test our theory by giving the state, and the corporate oligarchy that works with it, the sweeping powers required to enforce vaccine mandates?
• But let us return for a moment to eugenics. People think it looks exclusively like state-backed programs such as eugenics boards, or Josef Mengele, or the Holocaust. But eugenics is both more and less than these concrete programs: it is a logic.
• The logic of eugenics is a logic of willful control. It is anti-creational. The Christian understanding of creation is that it is a gift: received from Another, animated by a purpose and an order that precede man’s will. Eugenics, by contrast, attempts to reject the gift and is at root a bid by man to assert his will over the order of creation, rather than being steward to it.
• Humanae vitae articulates this logic well, though the encyclical stops short of calling it eugenical: “the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature to the point that [man] is endeavoring to extend this control over every aspect of his own life—over his body, over his mind and emotions, and even over the laws that regulate the transmission of life” (2).
• Am I saying this in order to equate the COVID-19 vaccines with forced sterilization? Of course not. I am, however, saying that there seems to be a similar logic at work in both—especially in view of the effort to exert immense public and private pressure on those who hesitate about receiving the vaccine. Again, even the appearance of a logical similarity between forced sterilization and compulsory vaccinations should at least give us pause.
• Let me lay my cards on the table and propose the following thesis: Modern medicine has an anti-woman bias. I say this on account of what I see as its tendency to view women’s bodies as if they were men’s bodies with some inconvenient body parts attached. Modern medicine, in short, does not regard women’s fertility as central to their health, but approaches it as a problem it doesn’t know how to handle. The medical establishment then tries to suppress this problematic fertility with contraception, to jump-start it with IVF, or to erase it all together with sterilization.
• Modern medicine is by nature short-sighted: it is focused on treating symptoms now, rather than on waiting to understand why they are arising and what they can tell us about the whole. For the same reason, modern medicine lacks the patience to understand women and their fertility. This is how we end up with the disasters of thalidomide and diethylstilbestrol. The history of modern medicine is littered with women’s bodies—and the bodies of their children (it is fairly well known that mothers who were prescribed thalidomide for their morning sickness gave birth to children with severe limb deformities; it is less well known that the children of mothers who were prescribed diethylstilbestrol are much more likely to have problems with their fertility—and their daughters are at much greater risk for blood clots and cancer. We are now seeing epigenetic effects in the grandchildren of those women who were prescribed diethylstilbestrol).
• Vaginal mesh is another example of the horrors inflicted upon women because of an over-hasty modern medicine directed all too often by the interests of pharmaceutical companies, rather than by the health of the patient. Some types of hormonal contraception increase a woman’s risk of fatal blood clots three to nine times, but this has never halted the production and use of birth control. Jennifer Block’s excellent Everything Below the Waist is a mine of information on these matters, while Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women documents the phenomenon of the bias against women in both modern medicine and modern science.
• The lesson is this: when modern medicine moves too quickly, women suffer most immediately. Men suffer too—it’s just that their suffering is not as immediate or apparent. How we treat women—and in particular their fertility—is a bit like the canary in the coal mine: it reveals how we approach all of nature (human and otherwise).
• We know that many women are reporting irregularities with their period after receiving one of the COVID-19 vaccines. Given what’s at stake—women’s health, their fertility, and human nature’s capacity to be, literally, pro-creative—why are we barreling ahead with this program of vaccination? Shouldn’t reports like these give us pause? Are we sure that we are not backing ourselves into a logic of violent control that is akin to that displayed in eugenics?
• I am not arguing that no one should take the COVID-19 vaccines. I am arguing that we ignore these kinds of signals about their possible long-terms effects at great risk.
• The biotechnology being used in the vaccines available in the United States has never before been used in vaccination. We do not and indeed cannot have data about its long-term effects. And yet we seem to be barreling forward with a population-level experiment while preparing to take coercive measures against those who would hesitate.
• In April 2020, the New York Times reported that it would likely take us until November 2033 to produce a vaccine. We have rushed this process in an unprecedented way. Why? So that we might attempt to guard ourselves against the possibility of suffering and the very slight possibility of a more immediate death?
• So much for the risk-benefit calculus. But I am also arguing that these vaccines in particular, combined with the pressures being exerted to force it upon everyone, look an awful lot like a form of hasty, eugenics-like control that is totalitarian in spirit.
• To repeat: I am not arguing no one should take these vaccines—it in fact seems prudent that many who are at higher risk should take them. But compulsory universal vaccination looks like an attempt to exert control over every single person on the planet. It thus smells strongly of the logic of eugenics and of its sponsorship by the state and its techno-corporate actors (which, it must be said, stand to profit a great deal from every person being mandated to take the vaccine).
• The Church has always acted as a counterbalance to the (attempted) political and cultural hegemony of the state. It’s one of the reasons Rome murdered Christians en masse.
• By contrast, Catholic institutions, such as universities, that claim to serve the Church, but are also joining the attempt to mandate an experimental vaccine, are not first serving the Church. They are making it clear that they serve the state first by exerting the same pressure upon the people as the state is.
• Many Catholics argue that we should get behind vaccine mandates (or even mandate them ourselves) for the sake of the common good. But public health is not synonymous with the common good. In order for a good truly to be common, it must transcend individual consumption. For a good to be transcendent in this sense, moreover, it must be wholly shareable by many at the same time A cake is not a common good because you and I cannot enjoy the same piece at the same time: by definition it is not common. The same is true of a road, no piece of which you and I can use at once.
• Creation, and its logic, however, is a common good. It is common to all of humanity, past, present, and future. It transcends us, preceding both our existence and our individual will.
• The anti-creational logic of eugenics is by definition also anti-transcendent because it is the assertion of one individual’s (or group’s) will over nature. It says that the individual’s will should supersede the logic of creation. And it does so, as history has shown us repeatedly, at the expense of the most vulnerable.
The COVID-19 vaccines—their hasty development, their unknown long-term effects, the private and public means being used to pressure everyone to get them—represent the assertion of control over nature, over human beings, that looks very much like the logic that is eugenics.
• All of this stands in sharp contrast to the biblical directive to steward nature, not assert our will over it.
• Christ did not ask us to be safe at all costs. He did not ask us never to risk. He asked us to understand that he is the way, the truth, and the life. He asked us to believe—profoundly, to the core of our very being—that our lives are not in our own hands, but they are in the hands of the Father. He asked us to see, protect, and preserve what his Father created.
• We are not given the gift of existence never to die, but so that we might live.
(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted on May 9, 2021.)
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