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How Eugenics Legislated Sterilization Around the World

A 1913 eugenics cartoon by Louis M. Glacken.

by: Hakeem Smith

In his 1883 work, Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development, Francis Galton coined the term, eugenics. Galton defines the term as deriving from “Greek, eugenes namely, good in stock, hereditarily endowed with noble qualities”.1 Galton subsequently established the first research fellowships in Eugenics at University College London, the first eugenics laboratory at the Eugenics Record Office, inspired the German Society for Racial Hygiene in Berlin (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Rassenhygiene), and popularized the phrase “nature versus nurture”. However, Galton’s colleagues and peers disagreed on methodology and philosophy, and various eugenics theories gained popularity throughout Europe — promoting diverging eugenics ideals.

Although eugenics theories and practices have existed since Ancient Greece, Galton’s theories established a (pseudo-)scientific foundation for the modern eugenics movement. The first modern eugenics theories proposed limiting childbearing and marriages between “inferior” and impoverished people; negative eugenics. Galton’s research eventually shifted toward a different field that promoted and encouraged breeding and marriage of the intellectually and physically “superior” to improve humanity through reproduction; positive eugenics. Eugenics propaganda alternated between negative and positive as eugenics societies spread internationally from the UK and Germany.

Advertisement for The Black Stork, a 1917 film promoting negative eugenics. South Bend News-Times, November 9, 1917

As the twentieth century progressed, eugenics societies became more prevalent and politically active. The proliferation of eugenics as a science continued throughout World War One and “[b]y the 1920s eugenics societies could be found in the Soviet Union…Mexico, Scandinavia, Brazil, Japan, and many other countries”.2 Most national eugenics societies converged on negative eugenics theories and focused on preventing the mentally handicapped, criminal, impoverished and otherwise unfit from breeding. In the United States, the Eugenics Research Association — employing both positive and negative eugenics — successfully influenced Congress to pass the Immigration Act of 1924 that excluded U.S. immigration from Asia while increasing the number of immigrants from Western Europe.

Eugenics Society Archives. SA/EUG/G.43, Poster: ‘Only Healthy Seed Must Be Sown!’ By Haywood (Printer?), Norfolk, N.C. (c. 1935?). Wellcome Institute Library, London.

After World War One, the work of eugenics societies soon became the legislation of states. The United States proves an excellent case study for this interwar period as well. By 1930 punitive forced sterilization laws existed in three US states — California, Nebraska, and Washington, and eugenic sterilization laws were enacted in 24 states. That number increased to 32 just seven years later. In that interwar period, California performed more forced forced sterilizations than any other US state.

Forced sterilization programs in the United States mainly targeted the mentally ill, physically handicapped, minorities, women, and criminals; sterilizing over 60,000 people by 1936.3 However Germany, under the Nazi regime, implemented forced sterilization laws that resulted in an estimated 300,000–400,000 sterilizations. Under Hitler, German forced sterilization laws primarily targeted mental patients and Asoziale (asocial) Roma, but forced sterilizations were also practiced on Jews in concentration camps, and secretly, on mixed race Afro-Germans. Though not nearly at the same scale, forced sterilizations continued globally after World War II.

“If inferior people have 4 children while higher-quality people have 2, this is what will happen.” Nazi eugenics poster from Volk und Rasse, August 1936.

An important distinction of forced sterilization legislation following World War II, is that the policies usually posit a focus on demographic factors and state welfare, rather than negative eugenics. Nonetheless, forced sterilization laws to prevent undesired peoples — e.g., mentally disabled or diseased — from breeding continue to exist despite a steady decline in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, the stated intent of most forced sterilization policies is for bureaucratic population control or to limit diseases, not to preserve an idealized racial superiority — though perhaps, a national one.

A poster by Rachael Romero for the San Francisco Poster Brigade in 1977.

Another important factor is that the targets of forced sterilizations often shift from a strict adherence of the law to include additional victims using a more nuanced interpretation. For example, “feebleminded women sterilized in North Carolina between 1950 and 1968 were less and less likely to be mentally ill or handicapped. Instead, they were increasingly likely to be single women who were sexually active or who were feared to become so in the future”.4 In recent years, forced sterilization legislation has shifted again to target transgender people.

The 1927 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, Buck v. Bell, upheld the state of Virginia’s legal right to forced sterilization; effectively legitimizing the practice throughout the United States. The United Kingdom, despite being the birthplace of eugenics, enacted no forced sterilization policies. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in 1948, codified fundamental human rights for all people. Internationally, forced sterilization policies are losing any legal foundation as newer international agreements and charters continue to identify protections and violations of human rights: UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disability, Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, Convention on the Rights of the Child, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court.

Cover page of the 2014 interagency report.

Most countries have reformed their forced sterilization policies, but many continue to impose the practice on marginalized groups. Moreover, so-called voluntary sterilizations are often coercive (or forced) by the use of incentives such as food, money, or housing. In order to address the practice directly, several UN agencies — OHCR, UN Women, UNAIDS, UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF, WHO — issued a joint statement deriding forced sterilizations and calling for countries to end any legal protections. International and national NGOs continually work toward exposing the forced sterilization history in the regions they operate, identifying the victims, ensuring the practice is banned, and fighting for compensation.

Forced sterilizations have historically affected marginalized and disenfranchised groups, but recently have lost many of the undertones of negative eugenics that popularized the practice in the early 20th Century. States are banning forced sterilization policies and issuing apologies to victims, yet few are compensating those victims for the human rights abuses. Those states still practicing forced sterilizations are, generally, focusing on population control or targeting specialized groups — e.g., transgender, HIV positive. This short essay seeks to contribute to original research on forced sterilizations, provide resources as an informal annotated bibliography, and encourage researchers, human rights practitioners, and civil society activists to pursue an end to forced sterilization in all its forms.