American Crime Case #69: Legalized Forced Sterilization in the U.S. Since the Early 20th Century

Bob Avakian has written that one of three things that has “to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better: People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.” (See “3 Things that have to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better.”)

In that light, and in that spirit, “American Crime” is a regular feature of revcom.us. Each installment focuses on one of the 100 worst crimes committed by the U.S. rulers—out of countless bloody crimes they have carried out against people around the world, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day.

See all the articles in this series.

THE CRIME:

On December 11, 1939, 18-year-old Andrea Garcia and her mother Sara appeared before Judge W. Turney Fox of the Los Angeles Superior Court for a hearing. Andrea’s probation officer, Karl Holton, had filed a petition to have her removed from her home and legally committed to a state institution. Judge Fox ruled that Andrea was indeed “a feeble-minded person” and from an “unfit home.” By the end of the week Andrea was committed to the Pacific Colony “Home for the Feeble-Minded” in Pomona, California—and a request was made by the superintendent to have her sterilized.

CarrieAndEmmaBuck-600px.jpg

 

In 1924,17 year-old Carrie Buck had been raped by a relative and gave birth to a child out of wedlock. She was declared “feebleminded” and was committed to the state institution at Lynchburg, Virginia where her mother, Emma was already living. Carrie was forcibly sterilized and her infant daughter was examined and also declared to be “feebleminded”. Legalized forced sterilization laws were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the important Buck v. Bell case from Virginia in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared:“...It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind... Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Sara strongly disagreed with both the commitment and the sterilization of her daughter. Within a week, with legal assistance from attorney David C. Marcus, Sara filed for a writ of prohibition against the sterilization of her eldest daughter, indicating that this procedure would be “performed ... upon the body and person of said minor child,” “against [their] wishes and desires,” and “without their permission or consent,” and there would be no remedy thus causing “great and irreparable damage.”

Andrea’s writ was denied by the judge, and approval to sterilize her moved forward. Following a review of her history and family background, the clinical staff at Pacific Colony decided that Andrea was a “mentally deficient, sex delinquent girl” from an “unfit home” who required reproductive surgery. The family history section on her sterilization request described Andrea’s father (who was dead) as illiterate and her mother as “subnormal” and an “alcoholic and immoral.” The sterilization request also described some of her siblings as “mentally deficient” and others as suspected of being subnormal, and her paternal uncles as “drug addicts,” and “all relatives alcoholic.” The request was approved by the California Department of Institutions just one week later.

California passed its first law permitting forced sterilization in 1909, aimed at preventing people with “undesirable” traits from having children. Between 1909 and 1964, through its “homes for the feeble-minded,” state mental hospitals, and prisons, California sterilized more than 20,000 women and men without their consent, including people alleged to suffer from mental illnesses, dementia, mental retardation and alcoholism, as well as those considered "promiscuous," sex offenders, and a wide range of other conditions and behaviors.

Minorities and individuals who were impoverished or living on the margins of society were disproportionately targeted: 39 percent of men and 31 percent of women sterilized were foreign-born. Despite being about four percent of the state population in 1920, Mexican men and women were sterilized at rates of seven percent and eight percent, respectively. African-Americans constituted just over one percent of California’s population but accounted for four percent of the total number of sterilizations. Most of those sterilized were either working class or lower middle class. Especially after the procedure of “tying the tubes” became faster and less medically risky in the 1920s, the sterilization of women and young girls categorized as immoral, loose, or unfit for motherhood intensified. A 1938 study, “Twenty-Eight Years of Sterilizations in California,” declared that the sterilization of “feebleminded women,” many of whom “had illegitimate children” and were committed “largely because of their promiscuity,” was among the most important and successful components of the state’s sterilization program.

California was a leader in this practice, but it was one of 32 states across the country to enact forced sterilization laws. By 1979, more than 60,000 persons were legally forcibly sterilized across the U.S. In 1927, these legalized forced sterilization laws were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the important Buck v. Bell case from Virginia in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared:

...It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind... Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

Both before and during World War 2, advocates of these laws maintained connections with various Nazi institutions and publications. Articles and books written by these advocates were specifically referenced by officials in Nazi Germany in the creation of their own sterilization legislation in 1933 as having provided them with proof that sterilization programs could be safe and effective. In addition, part of the Nazi self-defense at the Nuremberg trials was a reference to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Buck v. Bell and to Oliver Wendell Holmes’ written opinion.

The practice has continued into this century. Between 2006 and 2010, at least 100 female prison inmates were sterilized without required state approvals by doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation—and there are perhaps 100 more dating back to the late 1990s, according to state documents and interviews. In addition to tubal ligations, other types of sterilization were authorized 378 times at Valley State Prison from 2006 to 2012, according to the data, in many cases without permission from the women.

IN THEIR OWN WORDS:

Paul Popenoe, a leading eugenicist:

An elementary knowledge of the history of Africa, or the more recent and much-quoted example of Haiti, is sufficient to prove that the Negro’s own social heritage is at a level far below that of the whites among whom he is living in the United States.... The Negro race is germinally lacking in the higher developments of intelligence.   

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes:

...It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

Harry Laughlin, superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office:

As major publicist of a national committee in 1912 formed to study “the best practical means of cutting off the defective germ plasm in the American population,” Laughlin summarized the committee’s conclusion: “...approximately 10 percent of our population, primarily through inherent defect and weakness, are an economic and moral burden on the 90 percent and a constant source of danger to the national and racial life”

Sacramento philanthropist/eugenicist Charles Goethe:

Goethe wrote in a 1934 letter to eugenicist E.S. Gosney: “You will be interested to know that your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making program. Everywhere I sensed that their opinions have been tremendously stimulated by American thought and particularly by the work of the Human Betterment Foundation. I want you, my dear friend, to carry this thought with you for the rest of your life, that you have really jolted into action a great government of 60 million people.

THE CRIMINALS:

Thomas F. Joyce and F.O. Butler:

Both Joyce (of the Pacific Colony) and Butler (of the Sonoma State Home), as administrative overseers of the local sterilization decisions, were ardent supporters of forced sterilization for many people committed to their institutions.

Butler, a physician, personally performed at least 1,000 sterilizations throughout his career. He was described as a “true crusader” and “the most conspicuous physician in the world in this department.” Under Butler’s direction, Sonoma expanded its role beyond the institution by admitting patients solely for the purpose of being sterilized and then released—acting as a kind of revolving operating room (which may have accounted for as many as 25 percent of females sterilized there). Sonoma was said to have sterilized more “mental defectives” than any other institution in the world up to 1942.

State of California (and 32 other states):

From 1909 to 1964, about one-third of the documented forced sterilizations were performed in California under a series of laws which increasingly expanded the scope of those who could be forcibly sterilized. Long after eugenics was disproved as a science, California continued to target people, especially women, housed in state institutions. It was not until late in 2014 that California finally passed a law banning forced sterilization in prisons.

U.S. Supreme Court and Oliver Wendell Holmes:

The Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell, with Holmes’ majority opinion, ruled to uphold the Virginia Sterilization Act of 1927, which greatly boosted the use of these laws across the country. Later, in 1942, the Court had an opportunity to overrule Buck v. Bell when it reviewed and struck down an Oklahoma law that permitted certain thrice-convicted felons to be sterilized (Skinner v. Oklahoma), but instead it confined its ruling to demand only that involuntary sterilization be practiced in accordance with the Equal Protection Clause.

THE ALIBI:

The advocates of sterilization laws initially were eugenics zealots. Eugenics was a pseudoscience which aimed at "purifying the race" by "breeding" those with the "best" traits and sterilizing those with "undesirable" traits. It was then taken further to view nearly all "undesirable" conditions and even behavior that society frowned on as genetically determined, and sought to eliminate these "problems" by eliminating the genes that eugenicists believed "carried" them. In their view, progressive-minded society should be “helping out natural selection” by stopping the propagation of this bad germ plasm in those “unfit” people who manifested it. Thus sterilization, whether or not they consented, was put forward as a humanitarian approach to spare those people the burden of children.

Increasingly as eugenics was disproven, advocates of forced sterilization laws argued they were necessary to save the state the cost of supporting children on welfare, or in institutionalized situations.

THE REAL MOTIVE:

Forced sterilization and laws criminalizing abortion have gone hand in hand in this society. The patriarchal family is, in its essence, a property relation; the wife is the possession of the husband, and her fundamental and essential role is a breeder of children. These authorities in the capitalist system intervened to control what children were produced. Whether through laws against abortion, forced sterilization, or other types of control over reproduction, the goal was to ensure that women from “desirable” sections of society produced children, while limiting children of those deemed to be unfit and “problematic undesirables.” That component of the population was predominantly the poor, Black, Native, Puerto Rican, Latino/a, and Mexican people—and fairly quickly focused on the women in these groups.

It should also be remembered that this whole development of forced sterilization was occurring during a time frame that included significant immigration restrictions, and in the context of the major worldwide inter-imperialist war (1914-1917) and the economic and political crisis and collapse of the U.S. and worldwide capitalist-imperialist economy in 1929—all of which made control of what children were born an even more urgent necessity for those authorities.

 

SOURCES AND REFERENCES:

Black, Edwin; “Eugenics and the Nazis—the California connection,” San Francisco Chronicle (November 9, 2003)

Gould, Stephen Jay; “Carrie Buck’s Daughter“; originally published in Natural History magazine, July 1984

Kaelber, Lutz; “Eugenic: Compulsory Sterilization in 50 American States“; University of Vermont Social Science History Association

Kline, Wendy; Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom (2001)

Lawrence, Jane; “The Indian Health Service and the Sterilization of Native American Women”; American Indian Quarterly, Vol, 24, No. 3, pp 400-419, summer 2000

Lira, Natalie; (2015) “Of Low Grade Mexican Parentage: Race, Gender and Eugenic Sterilization in California, 1928-1952” (PhD dissertation, 2015)

Ordover, Nancy; “Puerto Rico“; in Eugenics Archives California (February 24, 2014)

Reilly, Philip R.; “Involuntary Sterilization in the United States: A Surgical Solution”; Quarterly Review of Biology (June 1987) Vol. 62, No. 2, pp 153-170

Stern, Alexandra Minna; “Sterilized in the Name of Public Health: Race, Immigration, and Reproductive Control in Modern California”; America Journal of Public Health (July 2005); Vol. 95, No. 7, pp 1128-1138

Torpy, Sally J.; “Native American Women and Coerced Sterilization: On the Trail of Tears in the 1970s”; American Indian Culture and Research Journal 24:2, pp 1-22 (2000)

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