For this topic, I plan to discuss eugenics and the forced sterilization of women in the early 20th century. I plan to explain how mostly the disabled, immigrants, and minorities were targeted as well as the implications of that. I will explain the racist and ableist roots of this era of American history, and how it’s tied with the vision of “perfecting the human race”. Essentially to protect society to those deemed “inferior”. I also plan to discuss briefly the legislative backing of this era as well as the effects this era had later on down America’s journey. Eugenics and forced sterilization is an ugly part of America’s past, and this era of the United States is severely rooted in close-minded racist and ableist ideologies.
Eugenics, the pseudo-scientific practice of “improving” the human race by eliminating “undesirable” or negative qualities from the gene pool, was introduced in the late 1800s by Francis Galton. Essentially, Galton helped start the rise of eugenics as a way to process “good genes” as well as the start of scientific racism in the early 1900s. To support his hypotheses and ideas, Galton experimented and collected data to further his study and knowledge of genetics. However, up until this point, none of his ideas and methods from his novels and research were ever put into practice, until Charles Davenport.
From his previous work at the SEE (Station for Experimental Evolution) and The Eugenics Committee of the ABA, Davenport came to realize that he had a passion for human genetics and felt the necessity of establishing a research station focused on the understanding of human heredity in the United States.1 Inspired from Galton’s work, Charles Davenport, a biologist, along with his partner Harry Laughlin, a teacher, teamed up to create the Eugenics Record Office or “ERO” for short. The ERO collected data on families and their ancestral history to see whether or not they were “fit” to have children, based on desirable genetic traits they carried down each generation. Flaws that were deemed “unfit” were usually disabled traits as well as minorities that did not fit into the Nordic or Angelo-Saxon (usually those from northern Europe and England) mold. After the ERO opened it’s doors in October of 1910, it’s first mission was to single out and identify the most defective and undesirable Americans, which was estimated to be 10% of the population and often called “submerged tenth”.5
To quote Robert Rentoul in 1903 from his pamphlet titled “Proposed Sterilization of Certain Mental and Physical Degenerates: An Appeal to Asylum Managers and Others” he goes on to say, “In the succeeding pages, I shall attempt to prove that there are some degenerates who, although they may have a right to marry, have no right to beget a tainted offspring — one which may be a danger to the public welfare, to themselves, or a tax upon private or public charity. Such degenerates should be sterilized, and so rendered unable to beget offspring.” 2 This quote represents a similar mindset a lot of supporters of eugenics had in the early 1900s. They believed they were doing the public a favor by getting rid of those “undesirable” genes and creating a better human race. Charles Davenport looked at eugenics as: “The law of segregation of traits, the disproof of the blending hypothesis [that traits from each parent merged in the offspring], is of the utmost importance since it shows how a strain may get completely rid of an undesirable trait” 3 Here is the common ideology that most eugenicists had when talking about eugenics. They often believed that “undesirable genes” were the cause of one genetic strain, when we now know several variables can cause different outcomes in a human body.
Physicians in America sterilized at least 10,000 patients over the last 150 years and had grown into a full-blown crusade to sterilize people deemed unable to produce desirable children.4 The movement was national and had spread across the nation by the turn of the century. The Eugenics movement being so impactful, researchers and historians often cite it as the inspiration for the Nazi “Aryan Master Race” and Hitler’s push to purify mankind. Even Charles Davenport was a supporter of these ideas as well.
LAWS AND LEGISLATION
Despite not having an official federal law for eugenics and coerced sterilization, many states began passing their own laws individually. The first state to do so was Indiana in 1907, Owens-Adair explaining the law as: “…probably the crudest. It provides that the subjects, which include confirmed criminals, idiots, rapists, and imbeciles, shall be passed upon by a board a physician’s and if in their opinion procreation is inadvisable it shall be lawful for the surgeon to perform the operation they deem necessary” 8 This meant that physicians by law had the right to sterilize anyone they saw to be “unfit”. Laws such as these were passed in over 30 states. Dr. Sharp’s, a key player in the Eugenics Indiana Law, studies on those who had been sterilized shown that allegedly both the physical and the mental condition of the patients had improved. In his mind there was a clear duty to “to the future of our race and our nation, to see that the defective and decided do not multiply.” 6
Buck v. Bell – The most infamous eugenics and coercive sterilization Supreme Court case. This case involved a woman named Carrie Buck, who had been sterilized for being feeble-minded. Since the case was a “friendly one” Buck’s lawers could not challenge her categorization as a defective.4 Harry Laughlin also examined this case, concluding that Carrie Buck’s sterilization was correct since she was a potential parent of inadequate or defective offspring.4
Immigration Laws – While not specifically eugenics laws, they were inspired by the idea of eugenics as it was another way to “purify” the US by keeping unwanted genes out of America. Examples include the Immigration Act of 1903 which regulated immigration by adding inadmissible classes for immigrants, Immigration Act of 1907 which kept out immigrants with disabilities and disease, and finally the Immigration Act of 1917 which added literacy exams to test immigrants’ IQs. These are all laws that were put into place so that America would stay safe from “undesirables”.
RACIST AND ABELIST DISCRIMINATION/PRACTICES
Many minority and disabled groups were treated poorly during this time. Barely any consent was given and those being sterilized often never knew what happened to them until it was too late. They were often told that they would be getting their appendix removed, even if they were experiencing no pain. Eugenicists stressed the racial importance of a child and their “pure” hereditary: “The function of eugenics is to produce a race healthy, well-formed, and vigorous, by keeping the springs of heredity pure and undefiled and improving the inborn qualities of the offspring. […] Eugenics, the youngest and most beautiful branch of biological science, is based upon a recognition of the racial importance of the child.” 9 For women, methods of sterilization were usually the removal of one or more fallopian tubes. Like said before, consent by the patient was rare and often times the patient was lied to, sterilized, and only became aware of it after it was too late. Men were not excluded as well, as they were also sterilized by vasectomy if they were deemed unfit.
As for the public opinion of this era, most of the time the public was unaware these things were going on. Though as eugenics gained popularity many were quite vocal about their feelings on the topic. As the issue spread worldwide, many feminists were very vocal on the subject and projected their concerns in numerous speeches, pamphlets, and journal articles.7 In contrast, high-status persons such as physicians rarely emerged as critics of eugenics. Those who did oppose the movement only disagreed because they felt there was not enough information to conclude such radical thoughts of sterilization on human genetics.6 In general, many common people opposed sterilization and its radical solutions to end the “undesirable” traits. Most of the science was pseudo-scientific and flat out fictional, and relied heavily on racist ideologies (hence the nickname “scientific racism”) 5. Davenport even suggested researchers substitute the words “human genetics” instead of “eugenics” to avoid stigmatization.1 Most of the eugenic’s supporters were professionals who “saw in the operation viable solutions to complex social problems and devastating physical ailments.” 4
In conclusion, the eugenics era of the united states was a quiet yet forceful era. Many lives were permanently affected by this injustice. Takeaways would be how untalked about this era was compared to many other historical events that had a similar impact. Another takeaway would be many of the big names such as Galton and Davenport had very close-minded thinking and often though white people were the superior out of all humans. Lastly, the final takeaway would be the innocent victims affected by this tragedy simply because the government thought they were not good enough to have the choice to have children.
Significance today would be how it’s very similar to how the rise of gene-editing and making the “perfect child”. Though less aggressive, both eras have a similar way of looking at humans as something to perfect and eventually, we will all have perfect genes. However, if gone unchecked or put in the wrong hands things can get very unhinged.
- Cogdell, Christina. Eugenic Design: Streamlining America in the 1930s. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010, 19
- “An Excerpt from a Pamphlet Supporting the Sterilization of Individuals in Asylums, 1903.” An excerpt from a pamphlet supporting the sterilization of individuals in asylums, 1903. | DPLA. Digital Public Library of America. Accessed September 9, 2019. https://dp.la/primary-source-sets/eugenics-movement-in-the-united-states/sources/1620
- Dorr, Gregory Michael. Segregations Science. University of Virginia Press, 2008.
- Largent, Mark A. Breeding Contempt the History of Coerced Sterilization in the United States. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2011.
- Black, Edwin. War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race. Washington, DC: Dialog Press, 2012.
- Reilly, Philip R. The Surgical Solution: a History of Involuntary Sterilization in the United States. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
- A., HASIAN JR MAROUF. Rhetoric of Eugenics in Anglo-American Thought. Place of publication not identified: UNIV OF GEORGIA Press, 2017.
- Adair, Bethenia Angelina 1840. Human Sterilization, Its Social and Legislative Aspects. Place of publication not identified: Nabu Press, 2010.
- “An Excerpt from a Pamphlet about Eugenics and Race, 1912.” An excerpt from a pamphlet about eugenics and race, 1912. | DPLA. Digital Public Library of America. Accessed September 9, 2019. https://dp.la/primary-source-sets/eugenics-movement-in-the-united-states/sources/1622.