U.S. forced sterilization, aped by the Nazis

One of the darker chapters of U.S. history involved the medicalization of problems that were actually matters of sex, class, and ethnicity.

And of the measures taken by physicians, with the full backing of government and the nation’s finest universities, was the forced sterilization of those deemed feeble.

Lutz Kaelber, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Vermont, and his Honors College students have compiled an extensive database on forced sterilizations in the United States, and it may come as a surprise that the state performing the largest numbers of such surgeries was California, accounting for a third of the national total of operations conducted.

The sterilizations didn’t stop until 1963, and the following graphic shows the cumulative numbers of victims as they accrued over time:

Temporal Pattern of sterilizations and rate of sterilization

Temporal Pattern of sterilizations and rate of sterilization

From his website’s California page, some details:

In total, 20,108 people were sterilized in the state of California prior to 1964. California had by far the highest number of sterilizations in the United States (one third of all sterilizations nationwide). The numbers of men and women sterilized were about equal. Of the total sterilizations, almost 60% were considered mentally ill and more than 35% were considered mentally deficient. Men and women of Mexican origin represented between 7% and 8% of those sterilized. African Americans made up 1% of California’s population but accounted for 4% of the sterilizations.  However, because of the sensitive nature of sterilization records, many are difficult to access or have been altered. This suggests that the total known number of sterilizations may be conservative compared to the actual number.


The 1909 law was aimed specifically at those in prisons and with mental disabilities that caused them to be institutionalized.  Of those with mental disabilities, the law targeted patients in state hospitals and institutions of the feeble-minded.  In terms of the prisoners, the law targeted those who were inmates for life, showing “sex or moral perversions”, or were certain repeat offenders. The 1913 law expanded to target all inmates in state hospitals or homes for the feeble-minded (except voluntary patients in state hospitals), as well as all repeat offenders in state prisons. The 1917 amendments greatly expanded the groups targeted even further to include those who had hereditary mental diseases, “those suffering from perversion or marked departures from normal mentality”, and those with sexually-transmitted diseases. These two later laws expanded to include virtually any individual deemed unfit.  About 70% of all sterilization were performed on people who were labeled mentally ill.

In 1909, in order to legally sterilize someone, the approval of any two of the three following individuals was required: the superintendent or resident physician of the institution, the superintendent of state hospitals, and the secretary of the State Board of Health (Gottshall).  If these approvals were given, sterilization could occur (Gottshall). In 1913, the jurisdiction over sterilization in California expanded to include the “State Lunacy Commission” and gave it the authority to order the sterilization of an individual with certain mental illnesses.  In 1917, after the establishment of the institution called the Pacific Colony, which dealt with the sterilization of epileptics and mentally delayed individuals, authorization procedures for sterilization changed. Sterilizations required the authorization by a Board of Trustees, and a clinical psychologist with a Ph.D..  For all, although consent from the sterilized individual or their family was not required, it was usually received. However, many individuals may have given consent so that they would be allowed to leave the hospital.  Neither records nor reports were required by any of the California sterilization laws to be kept.

The notion of eugenics was coined by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, who thought it would be a wonderful idea to take the natural out of natural selection, and speed up the process by weeding out those he and others like him deemed misfits.

Mostly they were people who didn’t look or talk like them, and they were disproportionately immigrants, women [seen as breeders of misfits], the mentally ill, the habitual criminals, the epileptics, the alcoholics, and anyone else deemed not eminently clubable.

Hitler’s medical minions loved what they saw in the U.S., and what they heard from Americans studying in the German universities then deemed the world’s finest medical schools.

And after he seized power, his lawyers and physicians used the American eugenics laws as the basis for their own sterilization programs and the infamous Nuremberg Laws that would define the parameters for exclusion and extermination.

And now for an interview an interview with the Adam Cohen, author of Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, the latest book on American eugenics laws and their legacies.

From Democracy Now!:

Part 1: Buck v. Bell: SCOTUS Case That Led to Forced Sterilization of 70,000 & Inspired the Nazis

Program notes:

As President Obama nominates centrist Judge Merrick Garland to replace late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, we take a look at what’s been described as one of the worst Supreme Court rulings in history. In the 1927 case Buck v. Bell, the court upheld a statute that enabled the state of Virginia to sterilize so-called mental defectives or imbeciles. The person in question was Carrie Buck, a poor, young woman then confined in the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded, though she was neither epileptic nor mentally disabled. In the landmark decision, eight judges ruled that the state of Virginia had the right to sterilize her. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote the majority opinion concluding, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The decision resulted in 60,000 to 70,000 sterilizations of Americans considered “unfit” to reproduce. At the Nuremberg trials, lawyers for Nazi scientists cited the opinion in defense of their actions. We speak to Adam Cohen, author of “Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck.”

Part 2: Buck v. Bell: SCOTUS Case That Led to Forced Sterilization of 70,000 & Inspired the Nazis

A transcript of the interview is posted here.

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