Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Forced Sterilization of the Disabled


Eugenics is a despicable part of the history of the disabled community. This trend, which had its inception towards the late 1800’s, attempted to improve the quality of American citizens by implementing restrictive social policies that discouraged marriage and/or reproduction of individuals who were presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits. In other words, if you had, or accused of having, any type of disability, it was unlawful to marry or have children. Without even a shred of evidence, it was believed that all social ills, such as prostitution, promiscuity and even poverty, could be linked to people with cognitive disabilities.

During this movement, a tiered hierarchy of defectiveness developed in order to be able to categorize different levels of “feeblemindedness”. Idiots referred to individuals with a mental age of two years or less; imbeciles represented those with an arrested mentality of three to seven years; and morons referred to those attaining a mental age of no more than twelve years of age (Snyder & Mitchell 624-625). These words we throw around today as a general insult were actual medical terms in the late 1800’s, early 1900’s!

Using this pseudo-science as a rationale, prominent figures – doctors, scientists, lawyers and others – of the early twentieth century attempted to purify the American race by passing legislation legalizing compulsory sterilization of individuals believed to be "feeble-minded", epileptic, or otherwise “socially inadequate” individuals. Because this latter criterion was so broad the number of people who were at risk of falling into this category was almost infinite. Those who were institutionalized were almost guaranteed to be sterilized. Approximately 60,000 Americans were sterilized due to compulsory sterilization of institutionalized patients. Although it was a topic of interest throughout the world, the United States was among the less than a handful of countries most involved with this pseudo-science. Between 1907 and 1937 thirty-two states required sterilization of various citizens viewed as undesirable: the mentally ill or handicapped, those convicted of sexual, drug, or alcohol crimes and others viewed as "degenerate"(McCarrick & Coutts, 2010).


Carrie's wedding photo after being deinstitutionalized

The most infamous case of eugenic sterilization was that of young Carrie Buck. Shortly after her birth, her mother was placed in an institution for the feebleminded. Carrie was raised by foster parents and attended school until the sixth grade. At 17, she became pregnant. Her foster parents committed her to an institution on the grounds of feeblemindedness and promiscuity. She gave birth to a daughter who was adopted by her foster parents. The child died at the age of eight due to complications resulting from the measles. Soon after being committed, Carrie was picked as the first patient to undergo forced sterilization after the enactment of the Eugenical Sterilization Act in Virginia. Officials claimed that Carrie and her mother shared the hereditary traits of feeblemindedness and promiscuity therefore Carrie was the "probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring." (Lombardo) In Buck v. Bell (1927) the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the sterilization law, with Justice Holmes infamously proclaiming in his opinion “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Carrie Buck, along with her daughter, Vivian, was sterilized

But this “justice” was in actuality an abuse of government and law which by extension was abuse of “degenerate” citizens. Carrie was not promiscuous; she was raped by a nephew of her foster parents who sought to cover up the family embarrassment by institutionalizing her. At her trial, “experts” who had never even met with Carrie testified to her feeblemindedness and moral inadequacies (Lombardo). Not only was her defense attorney childhood friends with the prosecuting attorney, he was also a longtime supporter of sterilization and a founder of the colony to which she was committed (Lombardo). School report cards showed that Carrie had passed each year with very good marks and Vivian had made the honor roll (Pitzer, 2009). She and countless others were the victims of corrupt individuals who used their education and standing in society to abuse the judicial system in order to reach personal political ends.


The Nazis cited the American eugenics ideology as their model behind their “ethnic cleansing”. The systematic murder of over 250,000 disabled people between 1939 and 1945 helped to finally dilute the fierce support for engineering a master human race here in the U.S. Fortunately, we have seen the end of compulsive sterilization albeit more than a little late for the more than 65,000 people in the United States alone who were forced to endure this procedure. Thank goodness, too, because if forced sterilization was still in effect, Myra Brown would never have a chance to become an honors student with the goal of attending the University of Cambridge in England.


Lombardo, Paul. "Eugenic Sterilization Laws."Eugenics Archive. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 November

2010. <>.

McCarrick, Pat, and Mary Coutts. "Eugenics." Bioethics Research Library at

The Joseph and Rose Kennedy Institute of Ethics, July 2010. Web. 3 November 2010.


Pitzer, Andrea. "U.S. eugenics legacy: Ruling on Buck sterilization still stands." USA Today (2009): n. pag. Web. 1 November 2010. <


Snyder, Sharon, and David Mitchell. "Eugenics."Encyclopedia of Disability. 2. Thousand Oaks,

CA: Sage Publications, 2006. Print.

1 comment:

  1. First, humanity endured the involuntary sterilization of the disabled and the actual killing of the disabled (ie. T-4). All this to create a "purer" race free of genetic abnormality. Now we must rail against selective abortion and pre-implantation genetic screening. Agin, to create a "purer" race. Although the barbarianism of forced sterilization and disability-cleansing have given way to selective abortion and pre-implantation screenings, we have really moved no further in acknowledging the humanity and personhood of all.