Thousands of Americans Were Sterilized for Being "Feeble Minded" in the 20th Century
Thousands of Americans Were Sterilized for Being “Feeble Minded” in the 20th Century

Thousands of Americans Were Sterilized for Being “Feeble Minded” in the 20th Century

Stephanie Schoppert - September 11, 2017

Thousands of Americans Were Sterilized for Being “Feeble Minded” in the 20th Century
Eugenics propaganda in the U.S. Many people supported eugenics up until the 1970s.

With the approval of the Supreme Court, forced sterilization became more widespread. At the time many states had eugenics laws on the books but actual sterilization was rare and practically non-existent in all states but California. After the ruling of Buck v. Bell, many states re-examined their eugenics laws. Some re-wrote the laws to mimic those in Virginia following the ruling. Suddenly eugenics and the sterilization of those who were deemed unfit to have children had much greater appeal and states were eager to implement their own sterilization procedures.

A study by the eugenicist Harry H. Laughlin found that many physicians prior to the ruling refused to do sterilizations because they feared prosecution from their patients. In response, Harry H. Laughlin created a “Model Law” which allowed for sterilization and passed constitutional scrutiny. It ended up being a big inspiration for Hitler and the Third Reich in their own eugenics efforts. In fact, the Third Reich offered Harry H. Laughlin an honorary doctorate from Heidelberg University in 1936. At the Nuremberg trials, many Nazi doctors cited Laughlin’s “Model Law” as part of their defense.

From 1927, sterilization rates as per eugenics laws climbed steadily. California had always led the country in eugenics sterilization and had performed 20,000 eugenics sterilizations from 1909 until 1979. By 1961, more than 60,000 compulsory sterilizations had been performed in the United States with more than 60% of those sterilized being women. It was believed that since women were the ones that bore the children, they were more responsible for the creation of “less desirable” members of society. In the 1970s, eugenics and compulsory sterilization took a much darker turn.

It was during the 1970s that activist groups discovered the efforts by some doctors and programs to sterilize the poor and disenfranchised members of society. More than 2,000 poor black women were sterilized without their knowledge or consent. The victims were all women in the south who were already mothers of multiple children. In one court case, it was revealed that some Latina women were coerced or forced to be sterilized after their cesarean sections. Another case found that two young black girls were sterilized after their illiterate mother was tricked into signing a waiver. These cases revealed the abuse of federal funds to promote eugenics efforts.

Despite the abuses in the 1970s, most sterilization programs were phased out by 1963. Few states were forcing sterilization practices in regards to eugenics and most laws were revised to remove eugenics language. Today compulsory sterilization is only allowed in Virginia for incompetent patients if it is deemed medically necessary for the patient’s health. In 1978, Federal Sterilization Regulations were created that were meant to prevent compulsory sterilization for eugenics reasons. However, the desire to weed out less desirable members of society through sterilization still continues. In 2013, it was found that 148 female prisoners were forcibly sterilized in California. In 2014, California passed a law that said sterilization in correctional facilities can only be performed if it is necessary for the health of the patient.


Sources For Further Reading:

History Channel – Eugenics

Facing History – The Origins of Eugenics

Science Direct – Compulsory Sterilization

New Yorker – The Forgotten Lessons of the American Eugenics Movement

PBS – Unwanted Sterilization and Eugenics Programs in the United States

DW – Remembering the Victims of Nazi Eugenics

Georgetown Library – Eugenical Sterilization in the United States

Timeline – How the Supreme Court allowed forced sterilization of women for 50 years

Minnesota Journal of Law & Inequality – Buck v. Bell, American Eugenics, and the Bad Man Test

Talk Poverty – The U.S. Is Still Forcibly Sterilizing Prisoners

Reuters – California Governor Signs Inmate Sterilization Ban

Washington Post – Eugenics Is Trending. That’s A Problem

Nature – Human Testing, the Eugenics Movement, and IRBs

Our Body Selves – The History of Forced Sterilization in the United States