Breeding Contempt: The History of Coerced Sterilization in the United States

Breeding Contempt: The History of Coerced Sterilization in the United States

Breeding Contempt: The History of Coerced Sterilization in the United States

Breeding Contempt: The History of Coerced Sterilization in the United States

Synopsis

"Mark A. Largent explores the history of compulsory sterilization in the United States by examining the assumptions and motivations that led to the coerced sterilization of tens of thousands of Americans during the twentieth century."

Excerpt

American physicians coercively sterilized tens of thousands of their patients over the last 150 years. Their efforts began around 1850, and by the 1890s the movement had grown into a full-blown crusade to sterilize or asexualize people who doctors believed would produce undesirable children. Even though they exerted significant influence on American culture, physicians alone could not garner the public support and ultimately the legislation necessary to allow them to coercively sterilize the unfit. Shortly after the turn of the century, several other groups of professionals joined them, including biologists, social scientists, and lawyers. Within four decades, two-thirds of the states had enacted laws that required the sterilization of various criminals, mental health patients, epileptics, and syphilitics. By the early 1960s, more than 63,000 Americans were coercively sterilized under the authority of these laws.

What is known about the practice of compulsory sterilization in the United States has generally been examined as part of the broader story of the American eugenics movement, which has received considerable attention by historians, cultural study scholars, journalists, and, on occasion, social and natural scientists. Most closely associated with the Nazis and World War II atrocities, eugenics is sometimes described as a government-orchestrated breeding program, other times as a pseudoscience, and often as the first step down a slippery slope that inevitably leads to genocide. By the end of the twentieth century, the word eugenics had become a slur, something to be avoided at all costs. Occasionally, though, we still see attempts to resurrect the eugenics movement, such as Richard Lynn's 2001 Eugenics: A Reassessment, Nicholas Agar's 2004 Liberal Eugenics: In Defense of Human Enhancement, or John Glad's 2006 Future Human Evolution: Eugenics in the Twenty-first Century, but these books represent the extremes in a conversation that typically depicts eugenics as deeply problematic.

Histories of coerced sterilization in the United States emerged in the 1960s, and they placed responsibility for the movement on a few select men who had . . .

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