Eugenic Sterilizations in North America

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EugenicSterilizations in North America

RandallHansen and Desmond King provide a comprehensive discussion abouteugenics in North America in the Twentieth century. The authorsdramatically and incisively demonstrate how eugenic sterilizationpolicies continued after the 1940s in both Canada and the UnitedStates. The most interesting part of the revelations that the twogreat authors make is how superintendents that manned homes for the‘feebleminded’ and advocates of sterilization strategicallyperpetrated their activities after 1945 to avoid being labeled Nazieugenics. They use interviews of victims of sterilization exerciseand primary documentation to trace the enactment of eugenic policy inboth countries in the years after World War II. According to Hansenand King, eugenics policies and eugenics advocates during that periodinformed different important policies such as welfare, birth control,and the population control in post-War North America. The authorsalso provide a very detailed discussion about revisionist history andthe choice movement, the population control movement, programs thatcharacterized the great society.

Threemain themes by the authors

Theeugenics movement

Inthe first chapters of Hansen and King’s book, the use a wide-rangeof secondary literature to explain long history of eugenics movementprior to World War II. Superintendents, as portrayed by the authors,played frontline role in having eugenics laws enacted. The casestudies highlighted in the book include the states of Oregon,Mississippi, Vermont, Michigan, Indiana, California, and Alabama. InCanada, the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta are the casestudies that Hansen and King discuss as jurisdictions that hadvibrant eugenics practices and effective legislation. In fact theauthors expound on the theme of the sterilization movement byfocusing on the work of superintendents in North America. They wereso coercive that they are almost tied to the whole sterilizationmovement. Superintendents lobbied and used their positions in stategovernments to influence the legislative processes so that eugenicslaws could be passed. The not only influenced the number of peopleto undergo sterilization under the pieces of legislation, but theyalso pushed for prescriptive clauses that specified number of peopleto be sterilized and the procedures to be used for sterilization.


Theconsequence of the activities of superintendents was that the UnitedStates ended up sterilizing over sixty thousand feebleminded peoplebetween 1910 and 1970. The exercise targeted women from minoritygroups. Canada, on the other hand, ended up sterilizing over threethousand people through coercive eugenics procedures. More peoplecontinued to undergo sterilization under the quasi-voluntaryprocedures. Hansen and King’s revelations are not only insightful,thought-provoking, and deep, but they also educate the reader aboutthe potential excesses of the state. The state, most often, actsdishonestly and in contempt of its citizens. Subjecting citizens,especially those with ‘disabilities’, to a eugenics procedurewithout their informed consent and concealing critical informationabout the effect of the sterilization drugs on their reproductivehealth, confirm the evil side of the state.

Abuseof power

Itis evident that state governments and educated members of the societyabused their power and authority over the vulnerable members of thesociety. In fact, Hansen and King point out in the book that it isinconceivable for such perpetrations to be executed in the modern-daysociety that has much emphasis on human rights. Patients describedin the eugenics forms as “mentally retarded” were ear-marked forsterilization by the welfare department to the Eugenics Board. Asdescribed in the book by Dr. Brown, the doctors that carried out thesterilization described the process as “essentially a court order”,a process that was paid for by the state government. It is alsoworth noting that the sterilization process was aided by socialworkers or by family members of the patient. According Dr. Brown inthe book, he did not have qualifications to determine mentalretardation and yet he still went ahead to carry-out sterilizationsupon receiving a patient from relatives or by a court order. Dr.Brown did not have contact with the Eugenics board, but he stillconducted the sterilization. He says, “He was just purely atechnician, that’s all,”(Hansenand King 262). He adds that the candidates for sterilization wereoften children in their teens. The accounts of Dr. Brown revel agreat deal of abuse of power by the government and social workers. The mentally retarded children were supposed to be protected andtreated by the government. Family members believed the coercions fromthe government and they subjected their children to the greatest ofhuman rights abuses in history. It is also evident that those whohave power and information can choose whether to use that power tomake the society better or to abuse it at the expense of thevulnerable members of the society. Experiments that sought to makethe human beings better through eugenics could not succeed withouttargeting the vulnerable.

Thestructure of the book

Thebook is divided in three parts: A, B, and C. Part A describes theworks of the superintendents in coercing some targeted members of theAmerican and Canadian public to undergo sterilization. Part A hasseven sections. The first section describes process of coercedsterilization, the second section describes the eugenics movement,and the third section describes the eugenic anxieties. The fourthsection describes the homes of the feebleminded that were largelyaffected by the eugenics movement. The fifth section explains theeugenics movement before World War II. The sixth section describescase between Buck and Bell, and the seventh section describes theperiod when sterilization was thwarted.

Insection B, there are three sections. The first section is anexplanation into the sterilization actions of the Nazi in Germany.The second section explains the way superintendents’ transformedpostwar sterilization so that they could not be compared to the NaziGermany under the topic, revivaland recovery: eugenics in new clothes. Thethird section describes the way eugenic supporters viewed thepopulation of the world.

PartC of the book has four sections. The first section reveals the plightof members of the Canadian and American public that underwentsterilization under topic,the sterilized: voices from Alberta and Oregon. Thesecond section describes sterilization after the Second World Warunder the topic, PostwarSterilization: Institutions and Abuse. Thethird section discusses the welfare of the sterilized victimsincluding African Americans. The last section describes theperpetrators of eugenic sterilization.

Thecritical part of Hansen and King’s book is the conclusion. It sumsup the themes of state dishonesty and abuse power. It is worth notingthrough the conclusion that all the legislations that were passed inthe first forty years of the twenty century had the stamp of theeugenics board. All thirty states had the stamp of the eugenicsstamp. The stamp and pervasiveness of the eugenics board reiteratethe theme of abuse of words.

Connectionof the book with the film, “No Mass Bebes”

Nomass Bebes is a documentary that about sterilization abuses by theLos Angeles County General Hospital. The most appalling relationshipbetween the documentary and Hansen and King’s book is that the maintheme of abuse of power is evident. The film revisits the Madrigalvs. Qulligan in which Mexican-American women sued in the 1970s afterrealizing that they had been sterilized during their emergencycesarean section delivery. Surprisingly, the film tells of Latinawomen who do not have knowledge that they had had tubal litigationuntil a young Latina lawyer, Antonio Hernandez, decides to contactthem. Antonio obtained the names of women from Bernard Rosefield, aresident of Los Angeles who is not only a witness but an advocateagainst the abuse. The lawsuit names the residents who carried outsterilization procedure, the state, and the federal government asrespondents. In both the book and the film, women undergo asterilization procedure without their knowledge. In both cases,authorities use their power to coerce women into unethicalsterilizations.

Connectionof the book with the journal article, Sterilizedin the name of the public health

Thearticle, sterilizedin the name of public health, hasa close relationship with Hansen and King’s book. In the article itis also evident that deceptive reasons to justify the eugenicsterilization that was perpetrated by state governments and otherpeople in power. Alexander Stern also traces the laws that werepassed in Indiana way back in 1907(Stern1027). According to the Stern, the family studies of the eugenicfamily that focused family lineages that were considered to havedefective genes. Stern gives examples of the Jukes and Kallikaksfamilies that were classified as defective lineages during the turnof twentieth century. In fact he observes that the 1907 eugenicslegislation in Indiana was part of the progressive era activism thatentailed championing for vaccination, pure food, and occupationalsafety. During that the society was increasingly believing thatscience was had solutions to the social problems that faced thesociety especially in 1909. As the desire to use science as theultimate solution to these problems increased, the society was drawncloser sterilization of lineage groups that were considereddefective. Stern also documents the involvement of superintendents ininfluencing sterilization legislation.

F.W.Hatch, the secretary to the state commission on lunacy (SCL) (laterrenamed the Department of Institutions in 1921), mastermindedlegislation that protected medical superintendents. In Stern’sarticle, a patient or a prisoner could be “asexualized” if theprocedure could improve their mental, physical and moral condition.Nonetheless, improving moral, physical, and mental condition, in thiscase, were the justifications that would later be proved to bediscriminative, unethical, and inhumane. The article also reiteratesthe themes of abuse of power and the pervasion of the sterilizationmovement.

Inconclusion, the eugenic sterilizations that took place in twentiethwere one of the darkest periods of race relations in the UnitedStates. It is evident that the idea of defective lineage was coinedto perpetrate abuse against women from minority races andcommunities. The accounts Oregon and Alberta women that weresubjected to the abuse reveals that the exercise of institutionalizedto the extent that it successfully targeted those considered to beracially inferior to the majority. It is appalling that bioethicscould not escape dark history of American race relations.


Hansen,Randall and Desmond King.Sterilizedby THE State: Eugenics, race, and the population scare intwentieth-century North America.CambridgeUniversity Press, 2013.

Stern,Alexandra Minna. &quotSterilized in the name of public health: race,immigration, and reproductive control in modern California.&quotAmericanJournal of Public Health95.7 (2005): 1128.

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