A PUBLIC APOLOGY FOR A PUBLIC MISDEED
On April 13, 2007 I was in Indianapolis for an unusual event. The State of Indiana was making an apology for an event that occurred one hundred years earlier. That event was the passage into law of the first compulsory sterilization law in the world. Actually
At the ceremony was a historical marker that was unveiled by a woman who was sterilized by that act. She said she was 15 when she was sterilized against her will and she was deceived and told she was having an appendectomy. When she later married and attempted to have children she learned the truth about her surgery. When she confronted the physician who did the surgery, he lied also, and denied she was sterilized. I thought about this situation. If you were not middle class and pretty helpless and ignorant, you could have been deceived and harmed by people who believed that they were wiser than you and could manipulate your body as they wished with the power of the state behind them. Would those who are still sympathetic to sterilizing “unfit” people be willing to sterilize the physician for lying to the patient and blame his lying habit on his genes?
I was attending the ceremony and symposium because I have written articles and books on the history of genetics and eugenics. Most people are unaware that some thirty states passed such laws in the first third of the twentieth century (including New York) and some 40,000 people (mostly white, the eugenics movement was motivated more by class than race) were sterilized against their will. Most of the sterilizations were carried out in California, where the support for sterilizations was strong among health groups and the middle class. The Supreme Court in 1927 even upheld the right of states to pass such laws by an 8-1 vote. They used Virginia’s law as consistent with the Bill of Rights and justified the sterilizations by citing the Constitutional right of the state to draft its youth during wartime against the will of the drafted. Fortunately most state courts have found their sterilization laws unconstitutional for their own state constitutions or the states have repealed them long ago. I have not read any news accounts of such sterilizations since the mid 1990s. Few of us appreciate the role of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s in giving all of us autonomy of decision-making and freedom from state discrimination that did not exist for humanity before then. The history of eugenic laws around the world teaches us that they are more often used to harm the innocent than to benefit the health of humanity as a whole. That was certainly true for the Nazi Nuremberg laws and for the American eugenics movement of the first half of the twentieth century.