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This week, President Joe Biden rolled out a large-scale federal mandate requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for two-thirds of the American workforce, impacting more than 100 million people across the public and private sectors. Some lawmakers have already called the mandate unconstitutional, and Arizona is the first state to sue to block it. This week on The Experiment: As the struggle between individual liberty and public safety rages, we revisit the story of the first Supreme Court battle over vaccines, waged more than 100 years ago.

This episode of The Experiment originally ran on March 25, 2021.

Further reading: Why Biden Bet It All on Mandates,” “Not Getting Vaccinated to Own Your Fellow Libs,” “‘Post-Vax COVID’ Is a New Disease

Be part of The Experiment. Use the hashtag #TheExperimentPodcast, or write to us at [email protected].

This episode was produced by Julia Longoria and Gabrielle Berbey, with editing by Katherine Wells. Fact-check by Will Gordon. Sound design by David Herman.

Music by Ob (“Wold”), Parish Council (“Leaving the TV on at Night,” “Museum Weather,” “P Lachaise”), Alecs Pierce (“Harbour Music, Parts I & II”), Laundry (“Lawn Feeling”), water feature (“richard iii (duke of gloucester)”), Keyboard (“Mu”), and naran ratan (“Forevertime Journeys”), provided by Tasty Morsels. Additional music by Dieterich Buxtehude (“Prelude and Fugue in D Major”), Johannes Brahms (“Quintet for Clarinet, Two Violins, Viola, and Cello in B Minor”), and Andrew Eric Halford and Aidan Mark Laverty (“Edge of a Dream”).

A transcript of this episode is presented below:

(A humming sound evolves into distorted, church-organ-like music.)

Pastor Robin Lutjohann: Hello, this is Robin.

Gabrielle Berbey: Hi, is this the Swedish Lutheran Church in Cambridge?

Lutjohann: (After a beat, laughing.) We haven’t been that in a very long time, but yes. This is — I’m the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church. How can I help you?

Berbey: Oh, okay. Thank you. [Laughs.] Um, I’m working on a story about Pastor Henning Jacobson.

Lutjohann: Yep! I’m sure this is about vaccination?

Berbey: (Distantly.) Yes, but … (Fades out.)

Julia Longoria: A while ago, producer Gabrielle Berbey cold-called a church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in search of the origin story of an argument we’re all having right now.

(Rhythmic, persistent synthesizer notes play a simple loop. The same notes sound as the synth moves up and down and up and down.)

Longoria: President Joe Biden just announced that two-thirds of American workers are going to be required—by law—to get the COVID vaccine. That’s a hundred million workers, including public and private sectors. Several governors and the chair of the Republican National Committee are already calling this unconstitutional, and at least one state already sued.

We are poised for a big legal battle over vaccines. And this isn’t the first time we’ve seen something like this in our country. You might say the battle started in this church, a hundred years ago.

(The music plays in the clear for a moment before disappearing with one final, resonant note.)

Berbey: Thank you for talking to me. This is, like, such a random call. (Laughs.)

Lutjohann: No! No, no, no. I love this kind of stuff. (Fades under.)

Longoria: Where the current pastor picked up the phone.

(The strains of distorted organ music play in the background.)

Berbey: Are you in the church now?

Lutjohann: Yeah, yeah. This is our organist practicing. I just put on my mask. We have a very talented organist. Here, listen.

(The organ music plays up for a beat.)

Berbey: Oh, I can hear that. Yeah.

Longoria: The original pastor of this church was a guy named Henning Jacobson, who took a personal—and very public—stand over vaccination in 1902.

Berbey: What are you seeing right now?

Lutjohann: I see two portraits of Henning Jacobson leaning against the wall.  

(The church-organ music becomes clearer and more intense. It punctuates each line of the pastor’s speech.)

Lutjohann: He looks like a, uh … He’s got, like, wild hair and a wild beard, kind of. I think he was, like, kind of like a fire-and-brimstone sort of preacher.

He’s dignified, I would say. Dignified.

Sort of asking, “What are you going to do with me?” [Berbey laughs.] And I’m like, “I don’t know, Henning. I don’t know, man.”

(A long beat of organ music with no speech.)

Lutjohann: I mean, it’s almost a little bit unfortunate that, like, the thing that … You Google his name, the first thing that pops up is Henning Jacobson v. The State of Massachusetts, which is, like, you know … [Chuckles.] In some sense, I suppose he was the first anti-vaxxer.

(The music changes tone dramatically, becoming airy, meditative, and light.)

Longoria: This week, the story of a man who took a stand for something he believed in and asked the Supreme Court to step into an argument that we still haven’t settled, over where the line is between our rights over our bodies and our duty to others.

I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment, a show about our unfinished country.

(The music plays up, then cuts out abruptly with a record scratch.)

Lutjohann: I once got a call from Swedish public radio. Did you know there was such a thing? I didn’t! (Fades under.)

Longoria: Being the current pastor of a church that was founded by an anti-vaxxer is a bit of an odd thing for Pastor Lutjohann.

Longoria: Am I saying that right, by the way? “Lutjohann”?

Lutjohann: Yeah.

Longoria: Cool.

Lutjohann: It’s German.

Longoria: Because of the history, people call the church with certain expectations.

Lutjohann: Uh, I think they called me thinking that ours was, like, an anti-vaccine church, or something like that. [Both laugh.] And I’m like, “Sorry, man, I have to disappoint you. Like, we had a flu shot at the soup kitchen at our church just the other day.”

Longoria: The story of the Henning Jacobson case has this weird quality about it, where people keep reaching back to try and find some kind of meaning from the life of this one anti-vax pastor.

(Classical music begins to play, light and lush, starting with strings before a clarinet melody enters.)

Longoria: So if we were gonna do the movie in your head of how Henning’s life went, how does it start?

Lutjohann: Let’s see. With the little knowledge I have, I have to figure out a movie. The movie would have to start in Sweden.

(The music becomes lively and energetic.)

Longoria: The movie would start in Henning’s boyhood in 19th-century rural Sweden, in a town called Yllestad, which is a remote community settled near a big blue lake surrounded by rolling plains.

Lutjohann: If you wanted to focus the movie on what he is most famous or infamous for, which is the Supreme Court case, then a Hollywood movie would probably start with him sweating and in pain, having his first bad experience of the vaccine.

Longoria: Henning first got vaccinated in Sweden when he was 6 years old.

Lutjohann: And then he carries that memory into his later life.

And then I imagine him coming to this country, wide-eyed, 13 years old, and sort of being struck by the diversity of America.

(Another strong beat of music.)

Lutjohann: Then he ends up going to college and seminary. All I know about him is from the few records we have here at church. It’s really not much to go on. You know, you should really talk to a historian. (Laughs.)

(The music plays up, and then cuts out with a record scratch.)

Longoria: Can you introduce yourself?

Michael Willrich: Sure. I’m Michael Willrich, I’m a chair of the history department at Brandeis University, and I’m the author of Pox: An American History.

Longoria: Professor Willrich has his own version of the Henning Jacobson biopic.

(More classical music plays, though sparser this time, and a little more distant.)

Willrich: I would open with him going down to the docks in Boston …

Longoria: A grown Henning Jacobson would take frequent trips from his home in Cambridge down to the city of Boston.

Willrich: Waiting as immigrant ships came into the harbor, meeting the Swedish immigrants who came off those ships, and finding jobs and housing for them, and basically being a kind of working-class minister.

Lutjohann: He just worked on building this community of people from scratch, gathering people together.

Longoria: Pastor Lutjohann calls him a sort of community organizer.

Lutjohann: He founded a church—an immigrant church—here, among people who were, for the most part, poor laborers who came to this country not with a lot of money, seeking economic opportunity.

(The classical music becomes a heavy, somber bell chime.)

Lutjohann: In 1901, there’s a smallpox outbreak in the northeast of this country.

Longoria: Smallpox was one of the most deadly diseases the world had ever seen at that point. It would result in fevers and oozing sores that would sometimes cover people’s entire face and body.

It was the same disease that European settlers brought to North America in the 17th century, when it killed Native American populations—many, many people. Two hundred years later, there were still outbreaks in major U.S. cities. And in 1901, Cambridge was in the middle of one of those outbreaks.

Willrich: It was part of this wave of epidemics across the nation.

Longoria: So the city of Cambridge decided to make vaccination mandatory.

Lutjohann: They’re very diligent about it. They go door-to-door.

Willrich: And I guess Jacobson was sufficiently prominent, because of his role as a minister in the community, that the chairman of the local board of health came to his door and knocked on his door and, you know, offered-slash-asked-slash-demanded [Chuckles.] that he be vaccinated, and Jacobson refused.

Lutjohann: He refuses, because he believed that it was his right to refuse vaccination. He’s like, “Nobody can tell me what to put in my body.” Part of the reason for that was that he had had some adverse side effects taking vaccines previously, and I think his son did as well. And so I imagine he was probably scared by that experience and he didn’t want to live through it again.

Longoria: Was there good reason for people to be scared or skeptical of vaccines?

Willrich: There was pretty good reason. Public-health departments would send out teams of vaccinators—very often in the middle of the night—into tenement districts usually inhabited by, you know, immigrant, working-class people. They go door-to-door on these sort of vaccine raids, and they’d inspect the arms of everyone who lived in these homes to see that they had been recently vaccinated—that they had a kind of vaccine scar on their upper arms. In his own community of Cambridge, people are jumping out of windows and running the other way, or are getting doctors to sign phony vaccination certificates. I found one episode in the historical record from Kentucky, where the vaccinators went into an African American neighborhood of this community, and ordered everybody to get vaccinated, and those who refused were handcuffed and vaccinated at gunpoint.  

Longoria: (Quietly.) Wow.

Willrich: There was outright violence used to compel people to be vaccinated, and Jacobson certainly would have been aware of that.

Longoria: (Lightly.) I mean, call me an anti-vaxxer, but that sounds really extreme.

Willrich: It’s the very extreme edge of this.

Longoria: Though most Americans did accept vaccines at the time, this kind of forcible vaccination was part of the reason there was a healthy transatlantic anti-vaccination movement already in motion.

Willrich: Every local community of any significant size might have an anti-vaccination league or society. Typically they’d form during an epidemic or during some period when compulsion was on the rise. They’d meet in small meeting places. They would publish leaflets, uh, that they’d circulate on the city streets.

Longoria: Jacobson attended at least one anti-vax meeting, but he wasn’t officially part of the movement. All he did was, for himself, refuse to get vaccinated.

Willrich: This sort of set this chain of events in motion in which he ended up being brought before a local criminal court, and the charge was “the crime of refusing vaccination.”

Longoria: Eventually, a team of lawyers took on Jacobson’s case and fought it in court.

Wendy Parmet: The question of the case was whether Jacobson could be fined $5 for refusing to be vaccinated.

Longoria: To help us understand Jacobson, the case, we called law professor Wendy Parmet.

Parmet: One of my strange pandemic outings over the summer was in search of the graveyard of one of Jacobson’s lawyers.

Longoria: She lives in Boston, where she’s the director of Northeastern’s Center for Health Policy and Law.

Parmet: I think I found what is his tombstone only a few miles away from my house.

Longoria: (Surprised.) Really?

Parmet: And I went “Wow!” And then went, you know, Nobody else knows what the hell I’m doing. (Both laugh heartily.) But it was something to do on a pandemic Saturday, right?

Longoria: She is completely obsessed with this case. Like, dedicated much of her career to understanding it.

Parmet: Jacobson, to me, is this incredibly rich case. It is so Delphic.

(A heavy, echoey sound plays sporadically in the background.)

Longoria: Delphic, like—as in, like, a Greek oracle?

Parmet: Yeah, in the sense that different people read it differently because you can see in it what you want to see in it. And I think, as with many texts, we bring our own worldviews into what we see in Jacobson.  

(The music becomes more elaborate, percussive.)

Longoria: You can see this in the arguments that Jacobson’s lawyers made. They were all over the map, laying out almost like a menu of options for why someone might object to a vaccine.

Willrich: They sort of threw the whole constitutional kitchen sink at this case. They argued that vaccination was dangerous, that compulsion was unnecessary, that this was a violation of every individual’s right to make choices about their own bodies.  

Longoria: Religious ideas also made their way into some of their arguments.

Parmet: There’s a lot of religious terminology in the briefs. I don’t have the exact quote up. My computer went to bed.

(Music stops.)

Parmet: Can you give me one second to wake up my computer?

Longoria: Yeah, of course.

(Music restarts.)

Parmet: (Searchingly stretches out each syllable before “Okay.”) And I will find it.

Okay. So this is from the brief before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, filed on behalf of Jacobson, asked, quote, “Can the free citizen of Massachusetts, who is not yet a pagan nor an idolater, be compelled to undergo this rise and to participate in this new—no, revived form of worship of the sacred cow?”

Longoria: As in, vaccines are a worship of the sacred cow?

Parmet: Well, there was this view … The word vaccine itself is from the Latin for “cow.”

Longoria: The word vaccine comes from vacca, or “cow.” Cows were a key part of the first vaccines ever made for smallpox.

Willrich: A country doctor might keep a cow on hand for the purpose of producing vaccine.

Longoria: Scientists found that people who were exposed to cowpox from cows had immunity to smallpox.

Willrich: Smallpox vaccine, as material, was live viruses taken from oozing sores on the bellies of calves.

Longoria: Vaccines and their precursors injected the material from boils.

(The music slowly distorts, then fades out throughout the next exchange.)

Parmet: … The pus … And put it under the skin of somebody who had not had smallpox. [A beat.] I’m probably telling you more than you want to know.

Longoria: That just, like, opened up a new room in my brain. I had no idea that it … (Laughs.)

Parmet: And you can find similar language in contemporary anti-vaccinationist websites. “It’s pagan. You’re putting something of the cow in you. You’re worshipping the cow in the revering of vaccination.”

Longoria: Wow.

Parmet: This fear and anger towards vaccination goes way back. This sense that it is somehow unnatural and ungodly goes way back.

Longoria: These are the arguments that Jacobson’s lawyers made to a judge. But the court struck all those arguments down. Jacobson lost his case at the local level—and then his lawyers appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.

(Wispy, ethereal music begins to play underneath the dialogue.)

Parmet: Jacobson is the first case where the Supreme Court took a claim of sovereignty over one’s body in terms of medical treatment seriously.

Longoria: This was one of the first times the Court was presented with this big question: Where do our rights over our bodies end, and our duty to the common good begin? And for Jacobson, the question was, could he be fined for choosing his rights over his own body over his duty to the people of Massachusetts?

Parmet: The Court held that he could be.

Longoria: The Supreme Court said, “Yes, Jacobson. You have to pay the fine.”

Willrich: The Court’s decision was—was really pretty interesting.

Longoria: Historian Michael Willrich again.

(Music ends.)

Willrich: The opinion of the court was written by Justice John Marshall Harlan, who was a Civil War veteran. And for him, it was clear that this case was a legitimate exercise of the police power of the state. Smallpox was extremely dangerous, and he insisted that, by the same logic that a government can raise an army to prevent a military invasion and can compel individual citizens to take up arms and risk being shot down in the defense of their country, by that same sort of rationale, the government can fight off a deadly disease and demand individuals to be vaccinated, even if it violated their sense of personal liberty or conscience or whatever.

Lutjohann: When there is a virus or some other disease coming in, personal liberty has to take a back seat to public safety.

Longoria: Pastor Robin Lutjohann again.

Lutjohann: And I—you know—this is a sticky and tricky thing to argue and to try to get right. And it turns out that he was on the losing side of history there.

(Soft, solemn piano music plays.)

Longoria: Since 1900, an estimated 300 million people in the world have died from smallpox. It was because of these mass vaccination campaigns that the very last known natural case of smallpox was recorded in 1977. It’s the first human disease to have been completely eradicated from the planet because of vaccines.

Parmet: There was this very short period—this wisp of history—where humanity thought we had conquered infection.

Longoria: After the smallpox outbreak that Jacobson lived through, and the influenza pandemic of 1918, there weren’t very many large epidemics in the U.S. until 60 years later, when we started to battle AIDS.

Parmet: We just sort of assumed that contagion was only the stuff of horror films and movies. It was behind us.

Once you recognize contagion’s ubiquity, you realize that so much of human history has been forged by battles over contagion. Contagion and epidemics have brought out the best in humanity and the worst in humanity. Contagions have been the excuse for so many atrocities in the world and so much discrimination. You know, plague came, and Jews were killed, and witches were burned. And we see this throughout history.

And so it’s a very delicate balance.

Longoria: Contagion brings out fear in all of us. In the times we’re living right now, it’s not hard to get inside of Henning Jacobson’s head when he refused the vaccine. He did it because he was scared.

(The piano music quietly slips off and ends.)

Lutjohann: I think I mentioned Henning Jacobson and his legacy in my sermon.

Longoria: Pastor Lutjohann has thought a lot about Jacobson’s fear. At the very beginning of coronavirus, when everything was just starting to shut down, he thought about what to say to his congregation. He didn’t want them to be afraid. And so he preached about a story in the Bible that he thought could help.

Lutjohann: It was about how, like, there are these poisonous snakes.

Longoria: In the Book of Numbers, God sent down a plague of poisonous snakes on the people of Israel.

Lutjohann: The disobedient people of God wandering through the desert are punished by God.

Longoria: And Moses—who was chosen by God to lead these people through the desert—watched as deadly snakes killed them, one by one. They were dying in droves, and people were terrified.

Lutjohann: And then Moses does this strange thing where he has a bronze snake made, and he puts it up on a pillar, and he displays it in front of everyone. And everybody who looks at the bronze snake on the pillar gets healed. So that’s the story.

Berbey: Okay.

Lutjohann: And there’s a number of different ways to interpret that.

Berbey: Yeah! I’m like, “What’s the message of that?” (Laughs.)

Lutjohann: “What’s the message?” Right?  

(Lush, atmospheric electronic lounge music plays.)

Lutjohann: The healing is going to come from the poison itself. How do the people bitten by the snake get healed? By looking at an image of the very snake.

I also mentioned to the congregation, you know—it’s also reminiscent of a very famous image that we see so often in medical sciences, which is also a serpent around the staff.

Berbey: Right.

Lutjohann: This idea that somehow the deadly poison of the snake is also a way to unlock the possibility of healing. And it’s come true in modern vaccinations!

Most of the way we get vaccinations is by somehow altering the disease itself and, ironically, injecting the disease into a human being.

I mentioned Henning, and I said, “Look, this is not just true about medicine. This is true about a lot of our lives, you know? Do you want to overcome your deepest fears and your most profound hang-ups? Well, often it is by actually going to the root of where they come from and facing up to them, rather than running away from them.” You know, you can’t keep running away. You got to go back to where the disease started, and that’s where the key is.

Longoria: Jacobson’s case paved the way for governments to require vaccination for kids in schools. It’s been cited in New York and California recently to strike down people’s religious objections to vaccines.

Pastor Lutjohann is glad that Jacobson lost this case—even if it means he’s not sure where to put up that portrait of Jacobson in his church.

(Music fades out.)

Lutjohann: We can be grateful for his work here.

Berbey: Yeah.

Lutjohann: At the same time, also saying the dude was terribly mistaken—

Berbey: Yeah.

Lutjohann: —about this one thing for which, unfortunately, he’s most famous now. And I think, in a way, maybe that’s beautiful, because it then means that we don’t get to make an idol of him. We don’t get to make this perfect, pristine founding father of him. You know, he was complicated!

(Fluttering, flitting electric-guitar chords play.)

Longoria: Henning Jacobson was complicated. And so is the legacy of his case. Twenty years after his case was decided, the government used the same argument that it used against Jacobson to make one of the darkest, most infamous decisions in U.S. history.

Longoria: Have you heard of Buck v. Bell?

Lutjohann: No. [A beat.] Tell me about it.

Longoria: That, after the break.

(The music plays, quiets, then goes out.)

(The break.)

(Symphonic electronic music plays, then fades out.)

Longoria: Over the years, people keep reaching back into Henning Jacobson’s case, looking for answers—not just to vaccination questions, but to bigger questions about how much power the government should have over our bodies. And the line between liberty and duty to others is not always so easy to draw.

Willrich: It’s just an incredibly complicated legacy because you—on the one hand, you—you want governments to be able to respond quickly and effectively in the public interest during a deadly epidemic. On the other hand, you want that to be carefully measured.

Longoria: Historian Michael Willrich again. The first time he read about the Jacobson case was actually as a footnote in a very different case.

Willrich: I knew about this case because I had written an earlier book that dealt a lot with eugenics. And Jacobson, the case, was the only precedent cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1927 in the case of Buck v. Bell. Buck v. Bell is, you know, one of the sort of scariest U.S. Supreme Court decisions of all time.

(Distant music plays, humming on a loop like a skipping record.)

Longoria: At the center of Buck v. Bell is a woman named Carrie Buck. She was born in 1906, one year after the Supreme Court handed down Jacobson’s case.

Carrie was just 3 years old when her mom, Emma Buck, was institutionalized for being, quote, “feeble-minded” and “sexually promiscuous.” Her dad wasn’t in the picture, so officials put Carrie in foster care with a family called Dobbs.

She stayed with that family for 14 years until, one day, she learned that she was pregnant. She said the Dobbses’ nephew had raped her, but the family put her in an institution—the same one where her mom was.

The baby, Vivian, was born in 1924.

(A moment without narration—only music.)

Longoria: In that same year, Virginia passed a law that allowed the forced sterilization of people who were unfit, or, quote, “afflicted with hereditary forms of insanity that are recurrent.”

The institution where Carrie and Emma were living chose Carrie as the first one to be sterilized.

Carrie got a lawyer and took her case to the Supreme Court. The opinion was written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Parmet: Oliver Wendell Holmes [Speaking haltingly.] writes an opinion that’s just very painful to read today. It’s a short, pithy, appalling opinion.

Willrich: He said that—you know, in the most famous line of that case—“three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

(The music fades out.)

Longoria: The court ruled that the state did have the power to sterilize Carrie Buck against her will.

Parmet: It’s—it’s just a horrific opinion. And his only citation in that case is Jacobson v. Massachusetts.

Longoria: Can—can you walk me through the logic there? How do you get from “Yes, the state can vaccinate you in a smallpox epidemic” to “You can sterilize a woman against her will”?

Parmet: Well, it’s the dangerous, far end of the idea that we need to sacrifice ourselves for the common good. This is a eugenicist opinion. And it assumes that her children would be equally “degenerate,” equally “impaired mentally.” To be clear, none of this was true. None of this was true about her.

To Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s point of view, Jacobson stands for the proposition that people need to sacrifice their individual—you know, we all need to give up something for the common good. He talks about how the best people are conscripted into the army to fight for the nation, and giving up your fallopian tubes is no big deal.

It’s the dangerous perversion of Jacobson, and Jacobson’s calling to the common good and Jacobson’s invocation of the social contract.

(Up and down, up and down, rhythmically again, a synthesizer loops and loops as background.)

Longoria: Right now, some justices on the Supreme Court are downplaying the importance of the Jacobson decision, questioning why we’re still turning to an over-a-hundred-year-old case in our current pandemic.

There are certainly reasons to question the legacy of Jacobson and how much it should apply to our lives today. But Wendy says she worries if you throw out the opinion altogether, that could be dangerous, too. It could roll back things like school vaccine mandates that Jacobson made possible. It all remains a delicate balance.

Pastor Lutjohann had always seen this case as straightforward: Jacobson was wrong, Supreme Court was right. He didn’t know about the more complicated legacy of Jacobson.

(The music fades under and out.)

Lutjohann: Tell me about it.

Longoria: So, Jacobson’s case was cited in this ruling. Basically, it said that there was a state interest in … cutting fallopian tubes of someone …

Lutjohann: Oh, yeah. I did hear about this. Yeah. Forced sterilization of—

Longoria: Exactly.

Lutjohann: —people who had mental illnesses, or … ?

Longoria: Yeah. Can—can I read you a Supreme Court—a little excerpt from the Supreme Court ruling?

Lutjohann: Please.

Longoria: It says, “The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.” And then it references Jacobson v. Massachusetts. And then the opinion goes on to say, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Lutjohann: Oh my goodness. [A pause.] That’s heartbreaking.

Longoria: The—the case was used in one of the most infamous Supreme Court cases we’ve ever had.

Lutjohann: Wow. I didn’t know that. [A beat.] That makes me see his case in a different light, honestly.

Longoria: How so?

Lutjohann: Because I think … movements like eugenics that sort of deny the full dignity and personhood of people who are different in any way—it’s just so obviously, for me, against what society should stand for.

(A beat.)

Lutjohann: You know, I’m from Germany. And so my grandfather’s generation was part of the movement that did just that to all kinds of people: dissidents, people who had cognitive disabilities, Jews. We see in—in many forms of dictatorship that this pattern keeps coming back. Like, you want to create this ideal world that doesn’t have “the undesirables” in it.

(Slowly, serious, humming music begins playing softly.)

Lutjohann: A part of me—I mean, I’m—I’m speaking completely personally, I’m not speaking for anybody here, but—like, a part of me … My basic attitude would be, like, I can see how in a pandemic as scary as smallpox (or epidemic, as the case may be) that a government would decide, “Okay, we got vaccinate everybody.” I can see that. I can see that case for public health being made.

I, of course, absolutely cannot see a public-health argument for forced sterilization of any group of people. And I’m appalled that one could go from one to the other, but I suppose I can see … I suppose, in a sense, it’s the same question of personal liberty versus public safety. But the question is, like, who gets to say what public safety is? That’s messy. That’s real messy.

(A moment of music playing in the clear.)

Longoria: I—I just wonder, like, thinking about him as somebody who had these convictions, who was stubborn about them, who fought all the way to the Supreme Court, right? That takes a lot of energy. That quality is not necessarily a bad thing, right?

That’s something that we value today. I mean, look—looking back on that part of his life, what do you think his life can teach us about the sort of legal battles—any battles—we’re fighting today?

(The music gently fades out.)

Lutjohann: I don’t know, because right now we’re in a—in a historical and cultural moment, especially in this country, where a lot of people are taking stances and being quite intransigent about their stances. It’s very popular right now to “die on a hill,” as they say, and to be gung ho about it and then have all these people online, cheering you on, as you do.

[Chuckles.] My goodness, if Henning was doing what he did today, how many people would stan him online, right? [Longoria laughs.]

Like, how many people would it be out there just, like, doing Kickstarter fundraisers for him and all kinds of stuff? [Longoria laughs.] I’m almost kind of grateful that that wasn’t possible back then, because who knows? That kind of stuff can go to your head. That kind of stuff can just totally change the direction of what you originally intend to do.

I want to make a case for, actually, less gung-ho intransigence, less dying on a hill, less stubbornness in defending causes, and more listening—assuming the best about the other person’s intention. Try to understand what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, what they’re going through. And then try to make some sort of judgment.

(A haunting song, like a lullaby, plays. The tempo varies as a piano-like melody weaves its way through wind instruments.)

Lutjohann: And there’s plenty little about that happening right now, unfortunately.

And maybe that wasn’t [Laughingly.] Henning’s strongest quality. But he subscribed to the same confessions and beliefs that I do. And I think that’s—that’s our task right now, too.

Berbey: This episode was produced by Julia Longoria and me, Gabrielle Berbey, with editing by Katherine Wells.

Fact-check by Will Gordon. Sound design by David Herman. Music by Tasty Morsels. Our team also includes Emily Botein, Tracie Hunte, Natalia Ramirez, Peter Bresnan, and Alina Kulman.

If you’re enjoying the show, please take the time to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen.

The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thanks for listening.

(The melody comes to a resting place, and the wind instruments play one final suspended note as the episode ends.)

Copyright © 2021 The Atlantic and New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at for further information.

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