101 Years Since First US Sterilization Law

Eugenics Congress logo According to the “Today in the History of Psychology” website, the first U.S. eugenic sterilization law was enacted by the Indiana legislature on March 9, 1907. “The law provided for sterilization of ‘confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles, and rapists.'” Indiana was not the first US state to attempt a compulsory sterilization law. A bill was introduced in the Michigan legislature in 1897 but failed to pass. Pennsylvania legislators passed a sterilization bill in 1905, but it was vetoed by the governor. The legislative success in Indiana was repeated in 1909 with similar laws in Washington and California. Thirty other states soon followed suit.

Over the next seven decades, about 65,000 people were forcibly sterilized in the US, which was the first country in the world to undertake widespread eugenic sterilization programs. According to Wikipedia,

The principal targets of the American program were the mentally retarded and the mentally ill, but also targeted under many state laws were the deaf, the blind, people with epilepsy, and the physically deformed. Native Americans, as well as Afro-American women, were sterilized against their will in many states, often without their knowledge, while they were in a hospital for other reasons (e.g. childbirth). Some sterilizations also took place in prisons and other penal institutions, targeting criminality, but they were in the relative minority.

The most notorious eugenic sterilization program was that of Nazi Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. The Nazis modeled their own program on that of the US, especially that of California where over 20,000 were sterilized. Over 400,000 people were sterilized under the German program in just over a decade.

On a per capita basis, however, the sterilization program implemented by Sweden was the most pervasive. Between the 1930s and 1970s, 20,000 to 30,000 people were forcibly sterilized in a population of about 7,000,000. There, winning release from a mental institutions was sometimes conditional on agreeing to sterilization.

Two Canadian provinces — Alberta and British Columbia — enacted eugenic sterilization programs as well.

Forced sterilization programs became increasingly unpopular after World War II because of their connection with the Nazi regime. By the 1960s, most US states had ended forced sterilizations. Oregon was the last US state to stop the practice in the early 1980s.

The source of much of this information was Wikipedia.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.