Into the Intro: Sterilized by the State
Go Into the Intro of Sterilized by the State
Sterilization as a public health policy did not end with Nazi Germany in World War II--rather it continued in North America well into the twentieth century. In this excerpt from Sterilized by the State by Randall Hansen and Desmond King, find out why.
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Outcomes, Theories, Methods
For almost a century, politicians, lawmakers, doctors, bureaucrats, scientists, and citizens embarked on an ambitious social engineering project: coerced sterilization.
In North America, it began in the 1880s, with one prison doctor’s desire to prevent masturbation among his inmates. In the following decades, hundreds of thousands of people – above all, those deemed to be “feebleminded” and there- fore likely to reproduce that trait – were sterilized in dozens of states, provinces, and countries around the world. The United States forcibly sterilized at least 60,000 feebleminded patients from the 1910s to the 1970s; Nazi Germany (the most widely known instance) sterilized approximately 360,000 such individuals in the 1930s; Canada eugenically sterilized approximately 3,000 people (more than 90 percent of such sterilizations occurred in the province of Alberta); and the countries of Scandinavia coercively sterilized 35,500, with tens of thousands more sterilized under quasi-voluntary conditions thereafter. In the United States, the majority of coerced sterilizations occurred within state institutions: chieﬂy homes for the feebleminded but also in state hospitals and prisons.
Eugenics provided the main justiﬁcation for sterilizing the mentally handicapped in the ﬁrst half of the twentieth century. To oversimplify somewhat, eugenics is the doctrine that states that the fostering of good genes and the elimination of bad ones will serve the cause of national “racial” health by permitting better breeding of a nation’s “stock” of people. Early social science research purported to show that there were large numbers of feebleminded and, on top of that, that they were producing children at a disproportionately high rate. Therefore, doctors, mental health superintendents, psychologists, and other professionals concluded that the inevitable result would be a gradual decline in overall national intelligence. Prevailing theories of heredity and their inﬂuential advocates maintained that inferior traits were necessarily transmitted without modiﬁcation from generation to generation. As a eugenic report published in 1918 on the “Care of the Insane” in California put it: “the whole stream of human life is being constantly polluted by the admixture of the tainted blood of the extremely defective.”
The story of the people that arranged and carried out sterilizations in North America, how and why they did it, and the story of those who were sterilized are the subject of this book. Our aim is twofold: (1) to understand why these eugenic sterilizations occurred, and (2) why they continued to occur after 1945. In answering the latter question, we seek an understanding of why, despite the revelations of the German National Socialists’ mass sterilization program and their mass murder of the mentally handicapped, sterilization in North American continued and, in some states, increased in the following decades.
Understanding coerced sterilization requires sifting the copious sets of primary documents on the topic. The book relies on archives from about twenty collections in four countries. In addition, there is a rich historical literature on eugenics and sterilization. Dozens of scholars have written meticulously researched and carefully argued books on eugenic ideas and eugenic policy in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany, as well as comparative studies of these and other countries. We cannot and we do not intend to replicate the exhaustive detail of existing case studies, and, in part for this reason, we devote as much space to the understudied postwar period as we do to the prewar one. Our aim in the prewar chapters is rather to use this literature to draw out further comparisons (including in particular the neglected and important case of Canada) and to reﬂect on the general factors determining whether states adopted coerced sterilization policies.
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