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The Beginning of Eugenics, Forced Sterilization, In the United States

Updated on March 24, 2015

The Horrors of Forced Sterilization

In the late 1800’s the theory of eugenics, forced sterilization, was developed and put into practice by many physicians in the United States. By today’s standards, the practice of eugenics is considered cruel and morally wrong by many in advanced societies. While due to the limited knowledge by the medical profession in the late 1800’s this practice could have been justified, to follow this practice today would be wrong for several reasons. The book, “Breeding Contempt, The History of Coerced Sterilization in the United States” by Mark Larget, documents the modern history (1880-1920’s) of eugenics. The book explains how it started, how it was developed by physicians, how it transformed to mean more that original intent, how it spread across the United States, and how it started to come to an end.

The first professionals to advocate coerced sterilization (eugenics) were physicians. The physicians started advocating coerced sterilization as a solution to America’s social problems and reducing the number of criminals who produced children who would themselves demonstrate the same behavior they inherited from their parents. Degeneracy, transferred from parent to child through either genetic or cultural inheritance, was a concept that drew increasing study throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century (Largent 11). While one could make a valid argument for this line of thinking, no one should be able to limit a person’s reproductive rights or tell one person how they should be raising their child as these issues are subjective and not objective.

People that fit into the category that would be targets for coerced sterilization were referred to as degenerate. American physicians used the term degenerate to describe anyone who showed signs of diminished mental, moral, or sexual capacities, and they believed that the sources of degeneracy were a combination of biological and environmental factors. The language used to describe these people was often dehumanizing and it reflected the subhuman status many physicians assigned to the degenerate. American physicians considered the merits of sterilization as a way to punish, to prevent them from committing future crimes, to reform them, and to prevent to propagation of their kind, years before Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution by natural selection (Largent 11). This attitude portrayed by the physicians at the time was very elitist.

The movement was started by Gideon Lincecum, a physician in Texas. Lincecum wrote a bill for the Texas Legislature called “The Memorial” in 1849. The bill would have substituted castration for execution as penalty for the certain crimes. Lincecum was a major proponent of castration, he published and mailed copies of “The Memorial” to approximately 700 Texas politicians, journalists, prominent citizens, and physicians (Largent 11) . This piece was written ten years before Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” Darwin’s work was used by many to justify coerced sterilization but with “The Memorial” being written ten years before, this demonstrates that evolutionary theory was not necessary for the development of mandatory sterilization laws in the United States.

Lincecum’s bill was not passed and was reintroduced in 1855 and 1856; it failed to pass both of those times as well.

While the practice of castration used by local authorities and prisons spread around the United States, the national discussion did not rise again until 1888 when Orpheus Everts, the superintendent of the Cincinnati Sanitarium, presented a paper to the Cincinnati Academy of Medicine that advocated castration, not as punishment, but for those that would be seen as having depravities that could be transferred by heredity (Largent 13). This was the beginning of the national spread of coerced sterilization. With this spread of the sterilization movement, came an escalation of the theory.

Also becoming somewhat popular in the 1890’s through World War I was the movement of orificial sugary. A gruesome practice by today’s standards and one would think that even for standards throughout modern history, orificial surgery constituted opening up or smoothing over the orifices of the body, with the belief that by making the openings bigger, toxins carried out by expirations could be expelled out of the body easier. The orificial surgery movement peaked around 1900 and faded as its aging backers were unable to attract new members in the years between 1910-1920 (Largent 17). Thankfully this type of surgery did not move past this era.

What did not fade was the practice of forced sterilization, it only grew but now it had progressed to include mentally disabled people and women. Other articles published in the American Journal of Medical Science were three papers presented at a symposium called “Castration in Mental and Nervous Diseases,” all of which focused on the castration of women via ovariotomy(term of the time). The thoughts on this were to control the nervous actions of women. Robert Battery, a physician who served in the Confederate army and practiced surgery in Georgia, operated on the urinary organs of men and women described how he castrated women for reasons including mental and nervous disorders; each of the disorders, he explained, was caused by “nervous irritation proceeding from the ovaries” (Largent 19).

Coerced sterilization had many in opposition to it as well but they were outnumbered by far by those that were promoting it. Many physicians across the country spoke out against the use of forced sterilization but the desire of the community to try to decrease the amount of crime and to decrease the mental illness population overcame those that were against the practice. Sterilization was looked at as a better option than putting someone to death, as it was also believed, in addition to decreasing the criminal’s ability to reproduce, that by eliminating one’s sexual desires would decrease their violent tendencies. As for the mentally ill, the use of sterilization was solely intended to make sure they did not reproduce and possibly produce children of limited mental capacity.

Forced sterilization also found itself to be used as a form of racism. In 1893, the president of the American Medical Association, Hunter McGuire, wrote to G. Frank Lyndston, professor of genito-urinary surgery and syphilogy at the Chicago College of Physicians and Surgeons, asking him to provide “some scientific explanation of the sexual perversion in the negro of the present day.” McGuire was motivated by increasingly common newspaper reports of “the crime of a negro assaulting a white woman or female child,” he sought the advice of Lyndston in order to find the best possible solution to the problem and lamented the “innocent, mutilated, and ruined female victim and her people” (Largent 25).

The first organized resistance to coerced sterilization occurred in 1927 with the case of Buck v. Bell, heard in front of the Supreme Court. Carrie Buck was an 18 year old woman whom had been committed to the Lynchburg State Colony of Epileptics and Feebleminded in Virginia. She had been committed by her adoptive family shortly after becoming pregnant; it was later learned that the pregnancy was due to her being raped by the nephew of her adoptive parents and they sent her there to cover it up. She was determined by the physician at the institute to have the mental capacity of a nine year old so he issued the order to have her sterilized under Virginia’s compulsory sterilization law. Dr. Priddy (the physician filing the order) asked Buck’s guardian to challenge the law in order to get it approved by the US Supreme Court and cemented into law. After all the evidence was heard, the court determined that Virginia’s sterilization law did not impose cruel and unusual punishment on those identified as feebleminded (Largent 101).

The practice of coerced sterilization continued widely but beginning in the 1930s some of the American professions that supported eugenics, including physicians, social scientists, and biologists, slowly started to withdraw their support. It still took decades before widespread support for coerced sterilization completely dissipated and the word eugenics acquired its current negative meanings (Largent 116). There has been a recent resurgence in forced birth control though. Beginning in the mid-1980s, the debate of coerced sterilization once again came into the public form. Many state legislatures revisited the idea of coerced sterilization and applying it to citizens who had committed particular sex crimes, women who abused their children, and to “welfare queens” (single mothers on public assistance) (Largent 141). Once again using forced sterilization to try to solve some of the social issues that are still facing us.

Many in the scientific and social engineering communities advocated forced sterilization throughout the 1900s. While a convincing case can be made on why these practices are legitimate and effective in deterring crime, there are just as many arguments as to why the practice of forced sterilization is wrong. We, as a people, should not be able to control the personal rights that a person has in regards to reproduction. This practice was also forced on those that had limited mental capacity and were not fully aware of the decisions they were making to would provoke forced sterilization. This group in particular needed care and education; not to be forced to undergo mutilating surgeries. Regarding criminals that were forced to undergo forced sterilization, while there may not be much sympathy for the predicament that they found themselves it, it was still a gruesome procedure that could be compared to a form of medieval torture. In today’s society we have chemical castration for sex offenders and Norplant (a long term birth control) for women that have been convicted of child abuse or welfare abuse by having children for the sole purpose of additional welfare money. The difference in these solutions as compared to the surgical procedures on the early 1900s is that they are typically voluntary as an alternative to a longer prison sentence and they are non-surgical procedures, much more humane than the forced mutilations performed during the early 1900s.


Works Cited

Largent, Mark A. "Breeding Contempt, The History of Coerced Sterilization in the United States." New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2008.

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