Quiet Eugenics: Sterilization in North Carolina's Institutions for the Mentally Retarded, 1945-1965

Article excerpt

FOR A READER ACCUSTOMED TO THE CONTEMPORARY LANGUAGE OF disability fights and to modern social welfare discourse, older professional writings about people with mental illness or mental retardation can be more than a little jarring. Consider, for instance, the following excerpt from the 1957 case history of a resident at Caswell Training School, in Kinston, North Carolina, the state's first facility for those diagnosed with mental retardation:

   Robert was the fifth in a sibling group of eleven.... A younger brother,
   James, has also been committed to Caswell. Their oldest brother was
   described as a habitual drunkard.... He [Robert] came from a broken home as
   his father was serving a term in the pententary [sic] for assault with a
   deadly weapon. He [the father] was found guilty on incest charge[s] with
   his step daughters. The parents suffered from asthma, and were considered
   feeble-minded. He [Robert] also was infected with venereal disease. (1)

This case history reads much like the eugenic family studies of the early twentieth century: it shares with those studies vague accounts of relatives "considered feeble-minded" or "said to be mentally retarded," along with an emphasis on the large number of children and elaborations of every possible negative trait in the extended family. (2) It is well documented that eugenic beliefs about the hereditary nature of mental handicaps were widespread in the United States during the first decades of the twentieth century, when eugenic ideology was also popular in Germany and elsewhere. Eugenicists typically tried to link mental handicap to any number of undesirable traits--anything from criminality to epileptic seizures--as evidence of a broader hereditary "unfitness"; and they sought legal measures to prevent the reproduction of those deemed "unfit," most often through forced sterilization. Between the 1910s and the 1930s twenty-nine states enacted and put into practice laws permitting the involuntary sterilization of the "feebleminded," as well as the mentally ill, the epileptic, and sometimes the criminal. (3)

Yet Robert's case history does not date from the 1920s or 1930s, at the height of the eugenics movement in the United States. It appears in a 1957 petition to the North Carolina Eugenics Board requesting permission to sterilize this Caswell resident. The Eugenics Board, established in 1933, remained operative in North Carolina until the early 1970s. Even as late as 1980, a North Carolina court authorized the involuntary sterilization of a woman diagnosed with mild retardation. (4)

Clearly, the effects of the eugenics movement persisted long after eugenics lost most of its public popularity following World War II. Yet previous studies have primarily examined how eugenic theories and legislation were accepted by medical and political authorities before 1940. (5) The process by which eugenic mandates were still carried out decades later remains to be explained. In North Carolina and elsewhere, authorities at a lower level, operating within the state bureaucracy and inside state institutions, continued to implement eugenic policies well after the enabling legislation had been enacted and forgotten by state legislatures. The study of eugenics from this perspective allows us to see eugenic sterilization not as a political goal or an abstraction of operations performed per year, but as a complex social process unfolding within the context of a beleaguered state mental health system.

By the 1950s eugenics was to some degree a southern phenomenon. However, the region had initially lagged behind the rest of the nation in embracing sterilization legislation. South Carolina in 1935 and Georgia in 1937 were the last states in the nation to pass sterilization statutes; moreover, the funding crises of the Great Depression meant that, in these states and across the South, very few operations were actually performed during the 1930s. …