Sterilization Laws

Of all the legislation enacted during the first four decades of the 20th century, sterilization laws adopted by 30 states most clearly bear the stamp of the eugenics lobby. The first law was passed in Indiana at the urging of the prison physician, Harry Clay Sharp, who advocated vasectomies as a way to prevent the transmission of degenerate traits. At meetings of the American Medical Association, Dr. Sharp convinced many fellow physicians to lobby their legislatures for laws allowing the involuntary sterilization of sex offenders, habitual criminals, epileptics, the "feebleminded," and "hereditary defectives."

Clearly, these laws were meant to keep "defective" individuals from reproducing amongst themselves and, thus, reduce the burden of "social dependents" who had to be supported in state institutions. Less clear, perhaps, was the intent to prevent mildly retarded people from reproducing with normal people, and thus, contaminate good genetic stock. This fear was generated by Henry H. Goddard's study of Martin Kallikak (1912), a normal man who sired a "defective" line after having an illicit affair with an attractive, but "feebleminded" girl. This was analogous to the fear of a mixed race person who might "pass for White."

Many of the early sterilization laws were legally flawed and did not meet the challenge of state court tests. To address this problem, Harry Laughlin of the Eugenics Record Office designed a model eugenic law that was reviewed by legal experts. This use of this law by State of the Virginia was tested in Buck vs. Bell, heard before the Supreme Court in 1927. Oliver Wendell Holmes delivered the Court's opinion upholding the legality of eugenic sterilization, which included the infamous phrase "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

In Skinner vs. Oklahoma (1942), the Supreme Court struck down a law allowing the involuntary sterilization of criminals. However, the Court never prohibited states from sterilizing non-criminals, despite later scholarship showing the falsity of eugenic "evidence" used in Buck vs. Bell. Sterilization of the allegedly mentally ill continued into the 1970s in several states, by which time about 60,000 Americans had been involuntarily sterilized.


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