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Forced sterilisation in the USA, for the community's good!

The term eugenics originated with English scientist Francis Galton. In Hereditary Gen­ius (1869), Galton advocated a sel­ective breeding programme among humans, to ensure that upper class char­act­er­istics eg high intelligence, were passed down.

Galton’s theories significantly shaped American policies. His ideas inspired Charles Davenport, a prominent American biologist, to es­t­ablish the Eugenics Record Office/ERO NY in 1910. Davenport app­oint­ed eugenics resear­cher Harry Laughlin as the first director, and the two men then hired field workers to collect defect­ive fam­ily traits from the public eg poverty, intellectual disability and criminal behav­iour. ERO campaigned for stringent imm­ig­ration controls; the pre-WW1 law denied entry to anyone judged ‘mentally or physically def­ect­ive, if it may affect the ability to earn a living.’ The first sterilisation law, in Indiana, stopped some dis­ab­led people from having children. Then they help­ed to pass legisl­ation in 28 other U.S states, allowing sterilis­ation of the unfit.

Fitter families competition
Eugenics Buildings
Topeka Kansas 1925

The 1920s was the era when eugenic science was thrust into popular American culture; later The Great Depression years became the Am­er­ican era of maximum eugenic sterilisation.

But it wasn’t until Hitler read and admired the writings of Amer­ic­an Harry Laughlin that the 1935 Nuremberg racial hygiene laws cop­ied the American experience. The Nazi party encouraged scient­ists to implement a formal sterilisation prog­ramme; in this German society, national health could take precedence over individual health.

At first, leading U.S eugenicists were thrilled to see what the Nazis had accomplished using an American model. But the Americ­ans eventually real­ised that Hitler’s persecution of Germans and neigh­bours could seriously under­mine support for sterilisation back in the USA. While the full horror of Hit­ler’s plans had not yet been made known to the world, the dictator had already become un­popular among Americans. For the first time, U.S eugenicists retracted their racial integrity and race betterment language, needing to describe the noble work of their movement differently.

Eugenics in the Depression were driven by a philosophy of soc­ial engineering that had been warmly backed by Pres Woodrow Wilson, Supreme Court Just­ice Oliver Wendell Holmes and Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood founder.

Young women’s apparent capacity for mother­hood was the critical issue when it came to the right to ever have babies. The requirement to demonstrate a woman’s unfitness for motherhood was even lower than it had been when defective genes had been the focus. Prev­iously eugenicists had to produce evidence of degeneracy based on the family tree or on intelligence tests. Now they only needed to establish that a young woman’s own mother was negligent. It was a shift in emphasis from heredity to maternal care, separating the Americ­an programme from Germany’s horror. Yet Calif­ornia’s Hum­an Bet­ter­ment Foundation (1928-42) focused on minor­ities.

Physicians usually recorded the procedures as voluntary, that pat­ients were motivated by a sense of responsibility. They no longer saw parenthood as a individual’s right, but instead as a “res­pons­­ib­ility to be exercised by a certain few and avoided by oth­ers”. And the community agreed. A 1937 survey found that 66% of citizens favoured compulsory sterilisation; only 15% opposed the pract­ice. 

Better Babies Contest
Judged by doctors from the American Eugenics Society
State Fair in Washington DC, 1931

By 1936, eugenics science was uncertain - genetic resear­­ch­ers were realising that the inheritance of traits ext­ended well beyond one generation. Even if all of the feebleminded persons in the country were sterilised, it could take many generat­ions to decrease the proportion of those traits in the population. This was because nor­mal people could be carriers of the trait. And environment was ignored.

Of the many cases in the literature, here is one. When inventor and entrepren­eur Peter Cooper Hewitt, he left two-thirds of his estate to his young daughter Ann and one-third to his wife Maryon. But his will stated that Ann’s share would revert­ back to her mother if Ann died child­less. Knowing this, and fearing that her daughter was im­bec­il­ic, moth­er paid two doctors $9,000 each to remove the teen’s fallopian tubes, without Ann’s knowledge. Shortly after Ann filed her civil suit in 1936, the San Franc­isco prosecutor charged Maryon Cooper Hewitt and the two doct­ors respon­sible for Ann’s sterilisation with a felony. The phys­icians were arrested and released on bail.

In the San Francisco court, Ann claimed her mother paid doctors to sterilise her during an app­end­ectomy, to depr­ive her of her rich father’s estate. Mary­on claimed that her daughter was act­ually morally degener­ate, addict­ed to sex; that she was mere­ly pro­tecting her feeble minded daughter, and society, from Ann’s pregnancies. But Ann wrote fluently in French and Italian. She had read books on Shakespeare, French history, Napoleon Bonap­arte and Marie Antoin­et­te. A nurse who cared for Ann post-operation exp­lain­ed that she’d been hired to look after a mental case but found a totally bright girl! Ann was just suffering from maternal abuse.

The doctors’ lawyer had negotiated with the Human Bet­ter­ment Foundation and the American Eugenics Society. Once he understood eug­enic arguments in favour of sterilisation, his exp­erts insisted that it didn’t matter whether Ann’s abnormalities were genetic; she WOULD make an unfit mother. They also discounted her nurse’s testimony as only physicians were qualified to detect feeble mindedness. The judge, convinced of Ann’s promiscuity and the wisdom of her doctors, dismissed the doct­ors’ charges.

Ann was being tried as Unqualified For Motherhood; she was ster­ilised because of environmental rather than genetic defects; she was the product of bad parenting, rather than bad genes. And the invol­un­tary procedure occurred in a private practice, not in an institutional setting. So she decided to settle the civil suit for $150,000 in an out-of-court settlement in June 1936.

Despite widespread coverage of the Cooper Hewitt case, there was no public uproar. The Great Depression had con­vinced Americans to cr­eate a citizenry with discipline and indus­t­ry, virtues to be cul­t­iv­ated in a good home. And the Cooper Hewitt trial set a legal pre­cedent that it was a woman’s moral responsib­ility to surr­ender her biol­ogical capacities for the public good.

The Eugenics Board of North Carol­ina operated from 1933-77 as an experiment in genetic engin­eer­ing; back then it was a legitimate way to keep welfare rolls small, stop poverty and improve the gene pool. 31 other states had eugenics programmes, but no programme was more aggres­sive than North Car­olina who gave social workers the power to select the victims… via IQ tests!

The doctor signing this card guaranteed a perfect physical and mental balance, and strong eugenic love possibilities, in his patient.. but was the card serious?

By the time most of the programmes were closed down, 64,000+ people nationwide had been sterilised by state order. Even so, it took dec­ades before California (1979) and North Carolina (2003) formally repealed laws authorising sterilis­at­ion.


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