Eugenics and Sterilization

Pre-'67: Eugenics and SterilizationIn the early 20th century, what had once been a fringe movement within the medical community began to gain ground – first in the United Kingdom and later in other countries including the United States. The effort, coined as eugenics, promoted a radical policy — compulsory sterilization. Doctors, medical professionals, and other scientific thinkers who supported the concept believed that this practice would improve the quality of human genes by limiting what they believed were non-desirable traits from the human population. Unfortunately, many of these traits included what we now know of as developmental disabilities.

In an effort to nationalize the movement, eugenicist and superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office, Harry Laughlin, published a Model Eugenical Sterilization Law in 1914 that proposed to authorize sterilization of those people they defined as “socially inadequate” — people “maintained wholly or in part by public expense.” The law included sterilization of the “feebleminded, insane, criminalistic, epileptic, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf, deformed, and dependent,” including “orphans, ne’er-do-wells, tramps, the homeless, and paupers.” This publication was the basis for Virginia’s Eugenical Sterilization Act, passed in 1924.

Virginia native Carrie Buck (1906-1983) was the first person slated to be sterilized under the new law. In Buck v. Bell, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Virginia law and, in support of the majority opinion, Oliver Wendell Holmes stated — “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Following the court’s decision, a sad chapter of our nation’s history unfolded as 30 states adopted eugenic laws. It is estimated that approximately 60,000 Americans were sterilized under these policies.

In an unpublished manuscript named after Justice Holmes’s statement, “Three Generations of Imbeciles Are Enough,” author Julius Paul of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research noted that, “[a]lthough Ohio never had an official sterilization law, this does not seem to be for lack of interest in the state. There were five attempts to bring a sterilization statute to the law books in Ohio from 1915 to 1963,” which he finds suprising, “as almost all states that had laws had stopped sterilizing by the sixties.”

Paul recounts that, “[t]he closest any of the laws got to passage was a 1925 law that passed both houses but was vetoed by Governor Alvin Victor Donahey. Two bills in 1939 didn’t make it out of committee. The 1963 bill, probably one of the last attempts by a state in the US to pass such a measure, died in committee as well.”

As Ohioans looking back over this unfortunate period, we are grateful that these measures failed.



Partial Source Material: “Ohio Eugenics” by Professor Lutz Kaelber, University of Vermont