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Forced Sterilization in the United States

A Short History

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Though primarily associated with Nazi Germany, North Korea, and other oppressive regimes, U.S. forced sterilization laws fit in perfectly with the eugenic culture of early 20th-century Americana.

1849

Gordon Lincecum, a famed Texas biologist and physician, proposes a bill mandating the eugenic sterilization of the mentally handicapped and others whose genes he deems undesirable. Although the legislation is never sponsored or brought up for a vote, it represents the first serious attempt in U.S. history to use forced sterilization for eugenic purposes.

1897

Michigan's state legislature becomes the first in the country to pass a forced sterilization law, but it is vetoed by the governor.

1901

Legislators in Pennsylvania attempt to pass a eugenic forced sterilization law, but it stalls.

1907

Indiana becomes the first state in the country to successfully pass a mandatory forced sterilization law, in this case impacting the "feebleminded" (mentally handicapped).

1909

California and Washington pass mandatory sterilization laws.

1922

Harry Hamilton Laughlin, director of the Eugenics Research Office, proposes a federal mandatory sterilization law. Like Lincecum's proposal, it never really goes anywhere.

1927

In Buck v. Bell, the U.S. Supreme Court rules (8-1) that laws mandating the sterilization of the mentally handicapped do not violate the Constitution. Writing for the majority, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes makes an explicitly eugenic argument:
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.

1936

Nazi Propaganda Poster Advocating Sterilization
Public domain. Image courtesy Wikipedia.
Nazi propaganda defends Germany's forced sterilization program by citing the United States as an ally in the eugenic movement, and its laws as proof of its status as same. World War II, and the atrocities committed by the Nazi government, would rapidly change U.S. attitudes towards eugenics.

1942

In Skinner v. Oklahoma, the U.S. Supreme Court rules unanimously against an Oklahoma law targeting some felons for sterilization (the plaintiff, Jack Skinner, was a chicken thief) while excluding white-collar criminals. The majority opinion, written by Justice William O. Douglas, rejects the broad eugenic mandate previously outlined in Buck v. Bell (1927):
[S]trict scrutiny of the classification which a State makes in a sterilization law is essential, lest unwittingly, or otherwise, invidious discriminations are made against groups or types of individuals in violation of the constitutional guaranty of just and equal laws.

1970

The Nixon administration dramatically increases Medicaid-funded sterilization of low-income Americans, primarily Americans of color. While these sterilizations are voluntary as a matter of policy, anecdotal evidence later suggests that they are often involuntary as a matter of practice as patients are often misinformed, or left uninformed, regarding the nature of the procedures that they have agreed to undergo.

1979

A survey conducted by Family Planning Perspectives finds that approximately 70% of American hospitals fail to adequately follow U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines regarding informed consent in cases of sterilization.

1981

Oregon performs the last legal forced sterilization in U.S. history.
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