Classic Essays

Sterilizing Criminals

by H.L. Mencken

THE RECURRENT EFFORT to eliminate criminal stocks by sterilizing criminals is opposed violently by sentimentalists, and also by the pseudo-scientists who argue fatuously that character is not inheritable. Common experience shows that it is, and all really scientific evidence supports the experience. The late Judge Frederick Bausman of Seattle (1861-1931) proposed after World War I that a sharp distinction be made between murderers whose crimes are of such a character that any normal persons, under the circumstances, might be imagined committing them, and murderers who kill strangers for gain. The former he proposed to treat tenderly, but for the latter he advocated certain death. This Bausman was an intelligent man — his book, “Let France Explain,” published in 1922, was one of the first effective challenges to the official theory as to the origins of World War I — but his proposals got very little notice.

The objection to sterilizing criminals is mainly theological, and hence irrational. On a more respectable level it is sometimes argued that a criminal may not transmit his evil traits to offspring, and in support thereof it is pointed out that he sometimes has quite respectable sibs. But this is begging the question, for no one proposes to sterilize his brothers and sisters, but only the man himself. Certainly the chances that he will produce criminal children are sufficiently strong to justify subjecting him to the trivial injury and inconvenience of sterilization. On the one hand the sentimentalists argue that crime is a disease, and on the other hand they deny that it runs in families. All human experience is against this. Nine out of ten professional criminals come from families that are plainly abnormal. Even if it be argued that their criminality is thus the product of environment rather than of heredity, it follows that the environment that they themselves provide for children is very likely to produce more criminals.

The theory that crime is caused by poverty is not supported by the known facts. The very poor, in fact, tend to be just as law-abiding as the rich, and perhaps more so. To argue otherwise is to libel multitudes of people who keep to decency under severe difficulties, and in the face of constant temptation.

— from H.L. Mencken’s notebooks

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