Eugenic Sterilization

The latter half of the nineteenth century witnessed great scientific advances in a number of fields, including biology. Charles Darwin’s On the Origins of the Species by Means of Natural Selection and Gregor Mendel’s experiments shed light on the hereditary transmission of characteristics, prompting consideration of how to use this knowledge to aid humanity. In 1883, the English scientist Sir Francis Galton was the first to coin the phrase ‘‘eugenics,’’ which means ‘‘good in birth’’ in Greek. Eugenics was concerned with applying principles of animal husbandry to humans, encouraging positive genetic traits and eliminating negative genetic traits by controlling who could breed and pass on their genes.

The scientific approach to human breeding found particular resonance in the Progressive movement in the United States. That movement was concerned with improving the conditions of the worst-off in society. Eugenics offered the promise that through the application of scientific principles, future generations of such unfortunates could avoid being born, improving the lot of all society. The rudimentary understanding of genetics at the time conceptualized such ills as pauperism, criminality, insanity, immorality, and low intelligence as negative hereditary characteristics that could be ‘‘bred out’’ of the bloodline. Progressive eugenicists sought to ensure that those possessing these characteristics would decline as a proportion of the population by encouraging or mandating the sterilization of people who displayed those characteristics.

While the ideas behind eugenics found favor across the world, the United States led the way in their practical application with Indiana becoming the first state to pass a law enabling the sterilization of persons for eugenic purposes in 1907. A further twenty-two states passed similar laws by 1926, and by 1940, thirty states had passed eugenic sterilization laws, with California and Virginia being particularly strong proponents. Most states provided for involuntary eugenic sterilization, whereby the state could forcibly sterilize a person found to be unfit to have children, because such offspring would be a similar burden on society.

The Supreme Court ruled involuntary eugenic sterilization laws constitutional in the case of Buck v. Bell (1927). The eight-to-one decision was announced with an opinion by Oliver Wendell Holmes declaring, ‘‘It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind . . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.’’ In Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942), the Supreme Court limited the use of involuntary eugenic sterilization for habitual criminals.

For a number of years eugenics was widely accepted; it was taught in many of the nation’s colleges, eugenicists took part in state fairs across the nation and a number of famous people supported eugenics, including Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge; John Maynard Keynes, the noted economist; and Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. The popularity of eugenics declined in the late 1930s, but involuntary eugenic sterilizations continued in the United States until 1979, by which time over 60,000 Americans had been sterilized.

The concern for the gene pool in the United States that was expressed through eugenic sterilization laws can also be seen in its miscegenation laws and the curtailment of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe (whose immigrants were seen as particularly degenerate and a threat to future generations of Americans) in the Immigration Act of 1924.

The American eugenic sterilization laws formed the basis for similar laws across the world, starting in the Swiss canton of Vaud in 1928. Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Belgium, Austria, Norway, and Germany were among those countries to embrace eugenic sterilization laws a way of dealing with hereditary defects and controlling the growth of ethnic minorities. Despite the United Kingdom’s early association with the eugenics movement, political opposition prevented the adoption of eugenic sterilization laws.

Eugenic sterilization was carried out most vigorously in Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler cited the United States and its laws aimed at genetic purity as an example for the world in his book Mein Kampf, and there was much interaction between eugenicists in the United States and Germany until the late 1930s. Nazi Germany sterilized hundreds of thousands of people between 1933 and 1945. Between 1939 and 1941, the logic of eugenic sterilization was carried to its conclusion and over 70,000 people deemed to be a burden on the state were forcibly euthanized.

Despite the association of eugenics and eugenic sterilization with the Nazi regime, the United States and much of Northern Europe continued to carry out eugenic sterilizations for the remainder of the twentieth century, although many countries repealed these laws by the 1980s and 1990s. Japan did not begin its program of eugenic sterilization until after World War II, starting in 1948 and continuing until 1996.

State-mandated eugenic sterilization is no longer a current concern in the field of American civil rights and civil liberties. Many states have apologized for their prior actions and a return to eugenic sterilization programs seems unlikely. Instead, the concern is more focused on similar results being achieved through coercion.

One fear is that advances in DNA testing raise the possibility that genetic defects could be accurately identified and that information used to affect decisions about reproduction to ensure ‘‘designer babies.’’ Fetuses possessing unfavorable genetic material could be aborted, or in vitro fertilization techniques used to ensure that only children with the couple’s favored genetic characteristics are born.

State coercion is seen as a bigger concern for the reproductive freedom of individuals. Some have called for the state to restrict access to welfare payments for those unwilling to be sterilized or have other long-term birth control procedures such as implants. Others see the existence of federally funded voluntary sterilizations as promoting a program of eugenic sterilization. These sterilizations, in addition to those provided by a number of charities, are performed on the poor with disproportionately large numbers from ethnic minorities. The argument is that by funding sterilization instead of other means of birth control the state encourages individuals to undergo sterilization simply because they cannot afford other options.


References and Further Reading

  • Kevles, Daniel J. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • Klein, Wendy. Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
  • Sofair, Andre N., and Lauris C. Kaldjian. ‘‘Eugenic Sterilization and a Qualified Nazi Analogy: The United States and Germany, 1930–1945.’’ Annals of Internal Medicine 132 (2000): 312–9.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927)
  • Skinner v. Oklahoma, 316 U.S. 535 (1942)


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