Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Into the Intro: Sterilized by the State

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Coerced Sterilization

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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