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In Reckless Hands: Skinner v. Oklahoma and the Near-Triumph of American Eugenics 1St Edition Edition

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ISBN-13: 978-0393065299
ISBN-10: 0393065294
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Nourse blows the dust off one of the most momentous forgotten decisions in Supreme Court history, whose import for society is easily appreciated but whose rationale must be not just dusted off but salvaged and restored. Under the influence of the eugenics movement’s promises of an improved humanity, Oklahoma, like many other states, passed laws in the 1920s and 1930s authorizing the sexual sterilization of people of low intelligence, mental patients, and criminals. The first Oklahoma convict targeted for compulsory vasectomy, Jack Skinner became the plaintiff in a case that would effectually overturn legal sterilization in the U.S. From filing to Supreme Court decision took six years (1936–42) and, as Nourse demonstrates, involved state politics, classic underdog advocacy, riots and breakouts by frightened convicts, and FDR’s attempt to pack the high court, but not any rights talk, even of the human right to reproduce. Back then, community interests and duly enacted laws generally trumped appeals to personal rights. Skinner v. Oklahoma was decided by arguments about the evenhandedness of Oklahoma’s convict-sterilization law. The justices concluded that the statute was discriminatory, not inhumane. Americans would do well to recall Skinner’s egalitarianism, Nourse says, as the persuasiveness of rights talk wanes. Completely engrossing, this may be the legal-history book of the year. --Ray Olson

About the Author

Victoria F. Nourse received her JD degree from the University of California, Berkeley. Currently the Burrus-Bascom Professor of Criminal and Constitutional Law at the University of Wisconsin, she lives in Shorewood, Wisconsin.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1St Edition edition (July 17, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393065294
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393065299
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #721,628 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Ronald H. Clark VINE VOICE on September 25, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is a history of the Supreme Court case of Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942), in which the Court threw out the state's law authorizing mandatory sterilization of "habitual criminals." The author does a solid job outlining the history of the Oklahoma statute, the legal proceedings before the case reached the Court, and the legal strategies employed by the state and Skinner. Along the way the reader learns quite a lot about the eugenics movement in this country in the early to mid 20th century, and how this concept had made its appearance in other countries, such as Nazi Germany for example. The author, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin and Emory, also discusses Holmes' famous decision in the earlier case of Buck v. Bell (1927) involving the mandatory sterilization of mentally defective individuals. The author is very good in explaining concepts to the general reader, one mark of an effective case history. What is quite striking, in addition, is the author's extensive attention to contemporary press material, law review articles, and other secondary sources. As she explains in her "Acknowledgements and Method," she practices "dirty history," i.e., devoting much time (and substantial effort) to examining local archives in conjunction with her more traditional legal analysis. The combination of the two approaches proves quite effective. All of this is spelled out in 29 pages of extensive notes which help to make the picture complete. The result is an outstanding example of how case histories ought to be written.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Worddancer redux VINE VOICE on December 8, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I picked this up hoping for a clearer understanding of why SKINNER did not overturn BUCK v. BELL. My interest is in the eugenics movement in the U.S., and--more specifically--in what cautionary tales we should learn from our own dark history that might deter us from over-zealous embrace of genetic technologies to cure social ills.

Nourse certainly provided me with an explanation of why SKINNER did not overturn BUCK v. BELL, and she also provided valuable insights into the larger social factors that held eugenics in place--the Depression and fear of crime, as well as the more familiar anti-immigrant fervor that arouse with industrialization--and began to weaken its hold (no, it was not JUST horror at the Nazi experience).

The book is of potential interest and value to people with a wide variety of interests and competences. For a book that delves as far as it does into technical judicial interpretation, it is quite accessible. I am contemplating using it for a Science and Values course, and look forward to seeing how students respond to it. Meanwhile, I am sending it as a holiday present to several friends, and recommend that course of action.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Greenberg on April 20, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I have just finished reading "In Reckless Hands". It is a remarkable book. It manages to combine extensive and impeccable research, a clear and transparent ethical sense, and an eminently readable writing style - a feat all too rare in authors, academic or otherwise. It took an enormous effort for the author to write this book. In doing so, she has given us all a treasured gift.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Bronx Book Guy on September 14, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a good example of using a certain case as a window into a bigger issue === it involves a case arising in the 1930s dealing with the sterilization of certain repeat offenders. The book provides a colorful look at Depression Era Oklahoma along with examining the larger social and legal issues involved. The author's usual writings are largely specialized legal articles. This allows the general public to get a flavor of the issues ... issues that retain importance to this day (science, treatment of criminals, courts protecting rights etc.).
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Robert W. Carter on October 21, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This book on such a monumental, but to the lay person, unfamiliar, case was wonderfully written. Starting it Sunday afternoon was not a wise decision since it made closing the pages for sleep Sunday night very difficult. Fortunately I had time today to finish.

There is great attention to detail, dedication to making "legalese" easily understood by all, and an unassuming tone of writing.
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