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Discovering US crimes against humanity and the Hepburns

Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn, suffragist, activist, birth control advocate, and mother of actress Katharine Hepburn
Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn, suffragist, activist, birth control advocate, and mother of actress Katharine Hepburn

The president of Guatemala couldn't have been more on point when he described recent revelations that the US had intentionally infected Guatemalan women with STDs. He called it a crime against humanity.

There is a parallel history to these crimes, which is just as persistent, that the US is a bastion for all goodness, chosen, global leader, etc. etc.

I was introduced to this parallel universe as an undergraduate, where on the one hand I was studying political science and history of the masters - that is, a narrative that supported the myth of US liberal benevolence. On the other, there is the reality.

I enrolled in a women's studies class. It was somewhat daring at the time - may still be - because I was the only male in the class and knew of only one other male student enrolled in a similar class. I was a political science major who had the list of required courses to complete for my degree. This particular women-in-politics class fit the bill.

My semester passed fairly unremarkably. The female students and the female professor liked to pick on me as the lone guy, but the real drama came when it came time to do my term paper.

I was, and still am, a big old Hollywood movie fan. So I proposed as a topic the political/activist role of women in Hollywood (viz., Bette Davis' landmark but unsuccessful lawsuit against her studio, which chipped away at the stable system, where actors were contracted to big studios and had little control of their careers).

Ok, to the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature [RGPL], an index the younger generation probably know nothing about. There was a certain art to looking through the RGPL: by year, by decade, indices.

What I was to find out when I looked up Bette Davis was one thing. But when I looked up references for Katharine Hepburn I was taken far from Hollywood and to the dark side of our liberal tradition.

If you type Hepburn's name into your Internet search, you will get all listings about the famed and admired actress. But via RGPL, interestingly, you would find another Katharine Hepburn: the actress's mother of the same name. The elder Hepburn was a prominent activist, alleged social reformer, woman's suffragist, and an early birth control advocate. Hepburn the daughter has said she was also a Communist.

While the only sign I could find of overt Hepburn activism was her political support of the Communist Party-backed, democratic socialist Henry Wallace in 1948 in his presidential bid, and against Harry Truman, the elder Hepburn's record was a pretty rich one. And disturbing to behold.

Disturbing because the Hepburn mother was one of the founders, with Margaret Sanger, of Planned Parenthood [first called the Birth Control League]. These crusading women advocated not only legalizing abortions but also sterilizations ... of Black and Asian women.

For whatever the elder Hepburn's true political affiliations, she dared to equate poverty with color and [to her logic] reasonably thought an end to poverty would come when poverty ceased to produce poor babies, ergo, sterilize the poor.

Before Hepburn the actress died, Planned Parenthood honored the elder Hepburn and named a fund after her both women in the 1980's.

Further, Bryn Mawr College, the prestigious women's college that both Hepburns attended, honored mother and daughter for their achievements.

The Hepburn revelation was one of my first introductions into the nasty underbelly of the liberal politics we marginalized are supposed to ignore - those marginalized include people of color, the poor, lgbtq's, women, not to forget men who dare to walk a different path, queer or straight, in spite of public rebuke.

I myself have held Planned Parenthood in particular and the abortion issue in general at a chilly distance ever since.

It has been the recognition of these crimes against humanity, demands for social justice, reparations, regime and system changes that has gotten the reactionaries to mobilize to dismantle social and public services, especially our public schools. In fact, a whole elaborate propaganda system has been fortified, which includes our mass media and increasingly includes our "intellectuals" in the universities. It has certainly impacted public education, note Ronald Reagan's desire to shut down the US Dept of Education, Bush I's education presidency, Bush II's No Child Left Behind, and Obama's Race to the Top.

The assault - the crime - continues to infect our rising generations with ignorance and compliance to a brutal system that wants only part-time labor from them, then to throw them away when finished.

The US "medical" crime in Guatemala is interesting. It comes just before our successfully toppling its democratically elected government in 1954, with the direct assistance of the CIA. So the war aims included not only saving United Fruit [precursor to Chiquita Bananas] but also for Nazi medical experiments.

The elder Hepburn was no Nazi, and she did make ample pronouncements which would make her communist sympathies believable and admired, but she also testified to US Congressional committees that Black and Asian women needed to be sterilized, that it was cruel to allow them to produce children they could not care for, etc. She did this rather than offer a radical critique of a capitalist system which had barely ended chattel slavery for Blacks and Asian workers and had made wage slaves of all workers: from this comes poverty, not color.

And what of the actress Hepburn's father? She described Thomas N. Hepburn as a "dyed-in-the-wool socialist." Dr. Hepburn was a physician and, like his wife, an activist in his own right. His concern was around venereal diseases and starting various private organizations to tackle this serious issue.

What was his role or knowledge, if any, in the crimes against Guatemala? Further, the records about that experiment show that the same doctors were involved in the domestic Tuskegee Experiment, where Black men were left untreated for syphilis and told erroneously they were being treated.

Dr. Hepburn was no small, local doctor with a pet interest. He was actively involved in addressing - to his credit - a serious health issue. Certainly someone with his involvement would have known about these things. But can he be as implicated in these experiments with "good" intentions as his wife was to her campaign?

We must no longer be shocked and awed by these revelations. There has always been a strange disconnect between the narrative of our supposed masters and that of the masses of humanity who suffer. Unfortunately, we must assume the worst from our rulers and the least from our collective response.


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