Foster Kennedy: Euthanasia for “Nature’s Mistakes” up to the age of 5

Kennedy’s address at the 97th annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in 1941 encapsulates well how the acceptance of evolution and utilitarian thinking are tied into arguments for eugenics (and euthanasia), which is ironic, of course, since many advocates for euthanasia deny such connections and modern proponents of evolution become apoplectic at the insinuation that their viewpoint is connected, even in a small way, with the horrors of the past.   Their dishonesty does not bode well for humanity.

Foster Kennedy:  The Problem of Social Control of the Congenital Defective:  Education, Sterilization, Euthanasia.  Delivered at the 97th annual meeting of the APA in 1941 in Richmond, Virginia, May 5-9.

It would be improper, I am sure, for their [the feebleminded] disposal to lay down any such arbitrary law as has come into existence in Germany by dictatorial method.  Were we to try to sterilize all the abnormal, I am sure we would defeat the evolution of the higher life.


Good breeding begets good brains; with no good brains there can be no good mind.

A “moron”–an old fashioned term–with a mental age of eight or nine can be educated within the frame of his endowment; he should be taken care of in an institution and taught simple manual work; few books, no abstractions, no general principles. He can be trained to do useful work, to be self-supporting, though often only within the framework of an institution. But if he can be diagnosed; if we be certain he is “feebleminded,” if he come out of feebleminded stock, then it will be wise to sterilize him if he is to be allowed abroad. [emphasis in original]

What to do with the hopelessly unfit? I had thought at a younger time of my life that the legalizing of euthanasia-a soft gentle-sounding word-was a thing to be encouraged; but as I pondered, and as my experience in medicine grew, I became less sure. Now my face is set against the legalization of euthanasia for any person, who, having been well, has at last become ill, for however ill they be, many get well and help the world for years after. But I am in favor of euthanasia for those hopeless ones who should never have been born-Nature’s mistakes. In this category it is, with care and knowledge, impossible to be mistaken in either diagnosis or prognosis.

I believe when the defective child shall have reached the age of five years-and on the application of his guardians-that the case should be considered under law by a competent medical board; then it should be reviewed twice more at four-month intervals; then if the Board, acting, I repeat, on the application of the guardians of the child, and after three examinations of a defective who has reached the age of five or more, should decide that that defective has no future nor hope of one; then I believe it is a merciful and kindly thing to relieve that defective- often tortured and convulsed, grotesque and absurd, useless and foolish, and entirely undesirable-of the agony of living.

But many may say: “But these creatures have immortal souls.” To them I would answer, in all respect and reverence, that to release the soul from its misshapen body which only defeats in this world the soul’s powers and gifts is surely to exchange, on that soul’s behalf, bondage for freedom.

Others will contend further, that this proposal would bruise and shock the feelings of the parents of these children in whom there is not mind enough to hold a dream to live by; nor a hope either of normal release. To them I reply: even now, when society has not yet advanced enough in humane thinking to make this beneficence of social good repute, to make it a usual and natural proceeding-parents of defective children appeal to us doctors again and yet again that their unhappy offspring be mercifully released from life. When I first wrote on this subject my mail was filled with letters from all parts of this country carrying sad pleas to which the law and the social mores could provide no answer.

A while ago there came a man of forty bringing his idiot girl of four, unable to sit up or speak. She would follow a light and look toward a sound, and that was all.


But for the normal adults, who having become ill, are going down into the shadows: I refuse. Many kindly doctors in their private capacity, in benign relationship of doctors and patient, may assuage and hasten the journey’s end; but to legalize such euthanasia may put a weapon in the hands of wicked men, or, worse, a tool in the hands of the foolish.

Furthermore, our knowledge is not enough to warrant such legalistic formal pomposity. I have many instances in my own experience of seemingly fatally ill persons who for years after, lived useful lives.


So the place for euthanasia, I believe, is for the completely hopeless defective: nature’s mistake; something we hustle out of sight, which should never have been seen at all. These should be relieved of the burden of living, because for them the burden of living at no time can produce any good thing at all. They can never have the joy of work nor the joy of play and, for many of them–perhaps the defective dystonias–even the placidity of the vegetable world. For us to allow them to continue such a living is sheer sentimentality, and cruel too; we deny them as much solace as we give our stricken horse. Here we may most kindly kill, and have no fear of error.

May I, before I close, quote as regards sterilization, an opinion of the late Mr. Justice Holmes of the Supreme Court? He was speaking of the sterilization of the supremely unfit:

We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives for the use of the State. It would be strange, if it could not call upon those who have already sapped the strength of the State, for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetents. It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerative 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 the cutting of the fallopian tubes.–Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

Now, the Law is the garment of our social body. A garment which must grow and shrink with the growth or reduction of us it covers. On our body, sometimes it constricts; as it did during the years of prohibition. In that silly period we allowed a law that drove down on the organism so much that the organism had to cut its way out. However, should the social organism grow up and forward to the desire to relieve decently from living the utterly unfit, sterilize the less unfit, and educate the still less unfit-then the Law must also grow, along with the amplitude of our new ideas for a wiser and better world, and fit the growing organism easily and well; and thereafter civilization will pass on and on in beauty.

1 comment

  1. Newspaper readers in early May 1941 were rather spoiled for choice when it came to discussions about killing the unfit :for reports of Foster Kennedy speeech advocating it vied for a space in the newspapers with reports about Nazi germany actively killing tens of thousands of its ‘unfit’ by Michael Straight in the new republic and elsewhere.

    Neither newspaper report became in anyway a public controversy, indicating the tacit report for these sentiments and actions among the agenda-establishing elite on the left centre and right …..

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