Eugenics and sterilization

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Sterilization procedures have been carried out in various societies as a method to control who is allowed to reproduce. In the 19th century; such procedures were first openly advocated as a kind of "scientific" social planning. "Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, coined the term 'eugenics', meaning 'the science which deals with all influences that improve inborn qualities'. It was adopted by a vociferous section of society, keen to diminish 'cacogenic' germplasm by segregating defectives in institutions and removing their ability to reproduce."[1]


Vasectomy was considered an ideal means of ending the reproductive capability of undesirable men by a number of physicians and scientists who published their ideas at the turn of the last century and the early decades of the 20th century. In 1899, Albert Ochsner, who would become Professor of Surgery at the University of Illinois, published "Surgical Treatment of Habitual Criminals", which advocated vasectomy for male prisoners.

"Some clinicians of eugenicist attitude carried out operations with no legal authority. F. Hoyt Pilcher, superintendent of the Asylum for Idiotic and Imbecile Youth in Kansas, castrated 47 inmates. The superintendent of a leper colony in Cuba stated he would change his plan to sterilize lepers with radiation to the use of vasectomy. In 1907, the state of Indiana introduced a bill authorizing the compulsory sterilization of any confirmed criminal, idiot, rapist or imbecile in a state institution, whose condition was considered unimprovable by a panel of physicians. Eventually 29 states had statutes permitting sterilization of the insane and feeble-minded, of which 12 also covered sterilization of criminals." [1]

To the proponents of these sterilization laws, they were seen as extensions of public health reforms in sanitation, vaccination and occupational safety. That first sterilization law in Indiana was based on family studies of defective lineages. Of all the states in the union, California ended up sterilizing 80% of the patients who lost their reproductive capabilities under eugenics. The Eugenic Record Office was at Cold Spring Harbor, NY.[2]

In 1927, the Supreme Court upheld the sterilization law in Virginia in the case of Buck vs Bell. Ths case involved the proposed sterilization of a female inmate of an institution for the Epileptic and Feeble-minded whose mother and daughter were both retarded. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes supported the measure, saying: 'public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the state for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence.... Three generations of imbeciles are enough'.[1]


Active measures to impose eugenics were prominent "in Scandinavia in the 1920s, where Hothar Scharling advocated pelvic irradiation for female and vasectomy for male mental defectives". Switzerland passed the first eugenics law in Europe, 1928, and it ay also have had the last: the Swiss programme to control the Gypsy population ended in 1972. The Russian Government sent a delegate to the American Prison Association Conference in 1910 specifically to witness a sterilization procedure;" Harry Sharp duly obliged with a 'consenting' prison inmate. Germany had a Social Darwinist movement from the late 19th century. In 1927, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Genetics and Eugenics was established, experimenting to discriminate race on the basis of blood group, shape of tongue and outer ear, and the half-moon at the base of the fingernails. A Reich Sterilization law was drafted in 1932, before Hitler's accession to the Chancellorship in January 1933. In July 1933, a law was passed which required certification of fitness to marry, issued by the local health office ('Gesundheitsamt'). Unsuccessful applicants were considered candidates for sterilization and tried in 'hereditary health courts'." [1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Drake et al. (1999). "On the chequered history of vasectomy". BJU International 84: 475-81. DOI:10.1046/j.1464-410x.1999.00206.x. Research Blogging.
  2. Stern AM (2005) "Sterilized in the name of public health: race, immigration, and reproductive control in modern California". Am J Pub Health 95: 1128-38.