States Forced Sterilization on Up to 100,000 since 1907: Eugenics Movement Was Strong throughout Century

Article excerpt

Americans stunned by recent disclosures that some 60,000 Swedish women were forcibly sterilized under a 40-year government program that ended in 1976 might be more shocked to learn that at least as many compulsory sterilizations occurred in this country in this century.

"I can say with absolute confidence that between 1907 and 1960, at least 60,000 Americans were sterilized pursuant to state involuntary-sterilization laws, and I am absolutely sure that was a floor, not a ceiling," said Dr. Philip Reilly, director of the Shriver Center for the mentally retarded in Boston.

"There were probably another 10,000 to 15,000 [such] sterilizations that were done," said Dr. Reilly, author of "The Surgical Solution," a history of the eugenics movement in the United States.

Eugenics is the science of improving a breed or species by carefully selecting parents and otherwise controlling hereditary factors in the production of offspring.

Garland E. Allen, professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, who is an expert on eugenics history, described the eugenics movement as "quite strong in this country, especially in the '30s."

During the 1920s and 1930s, more than 30 states, including Virginia, enacted compulsory-sterilization laws, most of them targeted at people who were institutionalized and were mentally retarded or mentally ill.

Many of those laws, which in some cases affected those in prisons and poorhouses, were not repealed until the 1960s.

Mr. Allen said a cumulative study of forced sterilizations in the United States confirmed about 60,000 surgeries had been performed as of the early 1960s. "But that was probably a low estimate," he said in a telephone interview. "There could have been 100,000."

Decried as immoral and unethical today, laws allowing state agents to select people for sterilization were viewed by advocates as being beneficial for society and the victims when they were enacted, Dr. Reilly said in a telephone interview.

Many prominent Americans - including Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger - and British luminaries, such as authors H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley and economist John Maynard Keynes, endorsed eugenics as a way of building a stronger, healthier society.

Eugenics proponents advocated barring reproduction by the "feeble-minded" and those with certain hereditary conditions so that "their genes would not be passed on," said Mr. Allen, who pointed out that "some who were sterilized weren't even mentally retarded."

Mrs. Sanger advocated eugenics in the Birth Control Review, a publication she edited until 1938. "More children for the fit, less for the unfit," she wrote in the May 1919 issue. …