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

By Mark A. Largent | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Nipping the Problem
in the Bud

The first professionals to advocate coerced sterilization as a solution to America's social ills were physicians interested in reducing the incidence of crime, or, more accurately, in reducing the number of criminals who produced children who would themselves presumably demonstrate the weaknesses 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. American physicians used the term degenerate to describe anyone who exhibited diminished mental, moral, or sexual capacities, and they believed that the sources of degeneracy were a combination of biological and environmental factors.1 The language used to describe such people was often brutal and dehumanizing, and it reflected the subhuman status many authors ascribed to the degenerate. Decades before any American biologist ever advocated the study of eugenics, long before Francis Galton coined the word eugenics, and even years before Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution by natural selection, American medical doctors considered the merits of sterilizing the nation's degenerates as a method to penalize them, to prevent them from committing future crimes, to reform them, and to prevent the propagation of their kind.


THE MEMORIAL

The earliest American advocate of sexual surgery to control or eliminate social ills appears to have been Gideon Lincecum. A prominent Texas physician and ardent proponent of castration, Lincecum was decades ahead of most of his colleagues in linking the topics of animal breeding, human health, and social policy. In 1849, he authored a bill for the Texas legislature, which he called “the Memorial.” The bill would have substituted castration for execution as penalty for certain crimes. Lincecum published and mailed copies of it to nearly 700 Texas politicians, journalists, prominent citizens, and medical doctors. He described how the threat of

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