Eugenics started with good intentions in the early 1900s but led to unethical actions based on social Darwinism. To increase the birth of white, educated, and healthy people who could support the existing population, the movement promoted banning birth control and sterilization. Eugenics considered sterilization and birth control essential to its vision of creating a superior human race through selective breeding. After all, if you can’t control whether or when you become pregnant, how can you ensure that only the best people have children? Both birth control and sterilization were considered necessary tools in this struggle against racial degeneration, and not just because they were desirable in and of themselves.
In response to women’s increasing power over their bodies, eugenicists turned to sterilization to reduce population growth. In Buck v. Bell, a 1923 Supreme Court case, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled that three generations of imbeciles were enough to justify Virginia’s compulsory sterilization of Carrie Buck. Having given birth out of wedlock, Carrie Buck was forced to have a hysterectomy. In court, she argued that her fourteen years of institutionalized education rendered her unfit to bear children. Despite being declared feebleminded by Virginia medical experts at trial, a 1927 Supreme Court decision overturned Buck’s sterilization order on constitutional grounds.
It wasn’t until 1965 that contraception became legal across all 50 states, and it allowed married couples to have children whenever they wanted, rather than when convenient or necessary for someone else. Contraception is, of course, accessible to people who choose not to procreate without negative health consequences, whether it is intended or not. It is not surprising that today’s debates about reproductive rights are rooted in a conflict around these ideas of responsibility versus personal freedom. On one side, opponents often say they’re concerned about what happens to people with insufficient resources to take care of themselves or their families if parents don’t have financial incentive to limit family size; on the other side, advocates worry about state interference into individual liberties, such as those found in cases involving mandatory ultrasounds and waiting periods before receiving abortion care.
Eugenicists viewed marriage and reproduction as means to achieve their goal. Eugenicists, however, also advocated against non-procreative sexual acts, such as homosexuality and masturbation. Eugenicists pushed for reforms to prevent the spread of such activities. Sterilization laws required mandatory sterilization of people with undesirable characteristics. Although forced sterilization was never widespread in America, over 30 states passed sterilization laws to prevent defective people from having children. Over 60,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized under state authority between 1907 and 1939 (when many of these laws were repealed). In this period, two-thirds of those subjected to involuntary sterilization were women. Often, they were forced into submission by social workers or doctors who threatened to restrict their reproductive ability if they refused surgery. They typically underwent tubal ligation — an operation that cuts or blocks fallopian tubes — or hysterectomies — the removal of wombs. In rare cases, men were subjected to vasectomies — the severing of ducts leading from testicles to seminal vesicles. In the 1930s United States, African Americans made up only one-third of all involuntary sterilizations but constituted roughly 75 percent of those deemed unfit for mandatory sterilization. Racists argued that minorities were more vulnerable to mental illness, crime, alcoholism, prostitution, and poverty because their heredity posed more significant risks than white people.
Follow me on social