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Breeding Contempt

Breeding Contempt: The History of Coerced Sterilization in the United States

Mark A. Largent
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 228
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  • Book Info
    Breeding Contempt
    Book Description:

    Most closely associated with the Nazis and World War II atrocities, eugenics is sometimes described as a government-orchestrated breeding program, other times as a pseudo-science, and often as the first step leading to genocide. Less frequently it is recognized as a movement having links to the United States. But eugenicsdoeshave a history in this country, and Mark A. Largent tells that story by exploring one of its most disturbing aspects, the compulsory sterilization of more than 64,000 Americans.The book begins in the mid-nineteenth century, when American medical doctors began advocating the sterilization of citizens they deemed degenerate. By the turn of the twentieth century, physicians, biologists, and social scientists championed the cause, and lawmakers in two-thirds of the United States enacted laws that required the sterilization of various criminals, mental health patients, epileptics, and syphilitics. The movement lasted well into the latter half of the century, and Largent shows how even today the sentiments that motivated coerced sterilization persist as certain public figures advocate compulsory birth control-such as progesterone shots for male criminals or female welfare recipients-based on the same assumptions and motivations that had brought about thousands of coerced sterilizations decades ago.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4380-2
    Subjects: History, Health Sciences, History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: In the Name of Progress
    (pp. 1-10)

    American physicians coercively sterilized tens of thousands of their patients over the last 150 years. Their efforts began around 1850, and by the 1890s the movement had grown into a full-blown crusade to sterilize or asexualize people who doctors believed would produce undesirable children. Even though they exerted significant influence on American culture, physicians alone could not garner the public support and ultimately the legislation necessary to allow them to coercively sterilize the unfit. Shortly after the turn of the century, several other groups of professionals joined them, including biologists, social scientists, and lawyers. Within four decades, two-thirds of the...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Nipping the Problem in the Bud
    (pp. 11-38)

    The first professionals to advocate coerced sterilization as a solution to America’s social ills were physicians interested in reducing the incidence of crime, or, more accurately, in reducing the number of criminals who produced children who would themselves presumably demonstrate the weaknesses they inherited from their parents. Degeneracy, transferred from parent to child through either genetic or cultural inheritance, was a concept that drew increasing study throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. American physicians used the termdegenerateto describe anyone who exhibited diminished mental, moral, or sexual capacities, and they believed that the sources of degeneracy were...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Eugenics and the Professionalization of American Biology
    (pp. 39-63)

    American biologists arrived quite late to the discussions about coercively sterilizing those citizens who were presumed to carry hereditary defects, and, it turns out, they were among the last to leave. Nonetheless, their influence on the movement was significant because they provided scientific authenticity to the claims made by sterilization proponents, and they established that at least some human traits, including certain clearly undesirable ailments, were heritable. For biologists, participation in the discussion about compulsory sterilization was part of their interest in the broader American eugenics movement, and they were vital to the advancement of the eugenics movement in the...

  7. CHAPTER 3 The Legislative Solution
    (pp. 64-95)

    Over the last 125 years, physicians in at least thirty-seven states sterilized some of the citizens that they considered unfit, and most of these physicians had the imprimatur of their states’ legislatures. After decades of efforts, advocates of coerced sterilization finally persuaded thirty-two state legislatures to enact laws that would allow physicians to sterilize mental health patients, the chronically ill, and certain criminals. The call for compulsory sterilization laws was part of the progressive movement that swept the nation shortly after the turn of the century, and it included efforts to limit the marriages of certain citizens, which, it was...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Buck v. Bell and the First Organized Resistance to Coerced Sterilization
    (pp. 96-115)

    Before the late 1920s, the only organized resistance to compulsory sterilization laws came from local or regional antisterilization groups. Take, for example, Lora Little’s Anti-Sterilization League, which organized in 1913 to oppose Oregon’s compulsory sterilization law. Little’s opposition to sterilization was part of her broader animosity toward the medical profession motivated by the death of her seven-year-old son. She believed that her son had died from a reaction to a smallpox vaccination, and she equated compulsory sterilization and compulsory vaccination. She “considered doctors to be little more than power- and profit-hungry oppressors who, operating with faulty ideas, only made people...

  9. CHAPTER 5 The Professions Retreat
    (pp. 116-137)

    Beginning in the early 1930s, some of the American professions that supported eugenics and compulsory sterilization, including physicians, social scientists, and biologists, slowly withdrew their support. It took decades before widespread support for coerced sterilizations completely eroded and the wordeugenicsacquired its current negative connotations. After some early resistance from criminologists, who generally rejected hereditarian explanations for crime but accepted some aspects of the American eugenics movement and certain claims common among compulsory sterilization advocates, there are three identifiable sources for the eventual decline of support for compulsory sterilization in the United States and ultimately for the decline of...

  10. Conclusion: The New Coerced Sterilization Movement
    (pp. 138-148)

    Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and continuing today, a number of deeply problematic assumptions about certain citizens’ supposed social inadequacies have allowed for the coerced sterilization of tens of thousands of mental health patients and prisoners. In many cases, state wards signed permission forms, but the coercive nature of institutional settings is obvious, and it is difficult to defend the operations as truly voluntary. While physicians had campaigned throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century for the legal authority to sterilize defectives at will, it was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that legislators seriously considered passing...

  11. Appendix. Bibliography of Twentieth-Century American Biology Textbooks
    (pp. 149-156)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 157-180)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 181-200)
  14. Index
    (pp. 201-214)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 215-216)