An American Scientific Nightmare: The Legacy of Eugenics

By: Julia Reinitz

Let’s begin with a little history of eugenics in the United States of America.

In 1907, Indiana became the first state to pass a forced sterilization law. It called for reproductive ability to be removed in any individual deemed “socially inadequate”. Throughout the 1910s, 20s, and 30s, approximately thirty states would follow suit by passing their own sterilization laws. Many sterilization programs, especially of the mentally ill, continued into the 1970s.

These laws were largely based on a model regulation crafted by then-leading biologist Harry Laughlin, whose research was in turn largely based on Darwin’s ideas of natural selection. Involuntary sterilization laws were upheld 8-1 in 1927 in Buck v. Bell, in which Virginia’s “Racial Inetgrity Act’ was challenged for having allowed the sterilization of Carrie Buck, a patient in an institution for epileptics. When delivering the majority opinion of the court, Justice Oliver Wendell Holms, Jr. wrote,  “It is better for all the world if, […] society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”

It is shocking to think eugenics flourished in our own beloved America long before it got started in Nazi Germany.  Even more appalling for those interested in the history of American science, leading biologists promoted eugenics programs. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to find estimates of how many people were sterilized nationwide as part of individual state programs. The surviving data, however, suggests that the number is likely to be in the ten thousands.

This issue has gained recent media attention because of new efforts in North Carolina to compensate victims of the forced sterilization program they adopted in 1929. The program in North Carolina had a disproportionate affect on women, especially women of color. 77% of those sterilized in North Carolina were female, and by the late 1960s 60% of those sterilized were young black women

Such individuals were often sterilized for purported sexual deviance, as in the case of Elaine Riddick. Sterilized in 1968 at age 13 after being raped and giving birth, Ms. Riddick’s story has come to the fore in newspaper articles attempting to dissect the pros and cons of North Carolina’s proposed compensation program.

These programs have spawned uncomfortable questions for our modern American society. What do we as a society owe the people who suffered from these programs? What actions are reasonable to take, especially in a time of tight budgets and even tighter legislative deadlocks? How do we even begin to evaluate the cost of being involuntarily sterilized?

There is a long empirical record of providing monetary compensation for horrible things imposed by the U.S. government. Any compensation for victims of eugenics, however, will be arbitrary. Furthermore, it will not truly be a fair compensation for everyone. There is no way for a group of legislators, or even a group of victims, to decide what is fair for everyone. Each victim of involuntary sterilization has suffered in different ways, and victims were sterilized at different points in their life. How can we equate the suffering of someone sterilized before having any children with that of someone sterilized after having at least one child?

This difficulty is reflected in the different responses victims of eugenics have had to one proposal for a $20,000 compensation sum. Ms. Riddick, for example, wanted $1 million in compensation, saying the state “took away something […] so valuable that I can never get back.” Other victims, like one Ms. Rita Thompson Swords, said the number was “fantastic”.

Furthermore, the state has so far only identified 72 of an expected 1,500-2000 living victims. This is an infinitesimally small fraction of the approximately 7,600 sterilized individuals. Many people may never get any recompense for what was done to them. One particular consideration for compensation is the lack of descendants eligible to receive compensation. After all, victims were medically sterilized and likely couldn’t have children or extended family.

Perhaps, the best thing we can do for victims of involuntary sterilization programs is to ensure they did not suffer in vain. By acknowledging this dark aspect of U.S. history, we can prevent it from occurring again. Think about it – how many of you learned about state-sanctioned eugenics programs in history classes? We are all taught about and condemn the use of eugenic logic in Nazi Germany. Why aren’t we taught the same things in regard to eugenic logic in the United States?

Unfortunately, nothing can be done to enable those who were sterilized to bear children. Financially, there is very little maneuvering room in state budgets through which to pay surviving victims. At least by understanding this issue, we as a society can do better.

Julia Reinitz is a first year in the College.