The domain of eugenics – a word derived from the Greek for “well born” or “of good birth” – was introduced in England in 1883 by a mathematician named Francis Galton, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin. He coined the term and wrote a book on selective breeding in humans. Like horses and dogs, he proposed, people could be bred to promote positive characteristics, such as intelligence. (They can’t, but animals probably can. These are America’s smartest dog breeds.)
In the United States, a movement developed from the ideas of Galton, but with a different twist; eugenics offered an argument to prevent people with unfavorable characteristics from having children. The concept gained popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, supported by academics, scientists and the progressive movement. A few states have started to pass laws allowing mandatory segregation and sterilization of those deemed incapable of reproduction. Lawyers argued that the practice was beneficial, not only for society as a whole, but for victims, who would be spared the responsibility of raising children.
In 1927, a single sterilization in Virginia changed the course of the eugenics movement, giving it legitimacy and momentum. Carrie Buck, a 17-year-old inmate from the Virginia State Colony for Epilepsy and Faint-of-Mind, had given birth to a child – found to be weak-minded at the age of six months – as a result of rape committed by a member of the host family. Like her mother and daughter, Buck was considered mentally retarded and authorities ordered her to be sterilized to prevent future pregnancies.
Buck challenged the order and his case went to the Supreme Court, which authorized sterilization. The court ruled that “It’s better for the whole world … if society can prevent those who are clearly unfit from continuing their species.” In the infamous concluding words of Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Three generations of fools is enough.” “
The case gained wider acceptance for eugenics, and the number of sterilizations increased dramatically across the United States in the 1930s and beyond. Some 32 states eventually adopted legally documented eugenic programs involving sterilization, usually forced. (Fortunately, promoting eugenics does not need to be included in our list of the worst thing about every state.)
Click here to see 32 states sterilizing their citizens
Poor people like Carrie Buck – and women in particular – have been the main victims. Foreigners and people of color have also been targeted. Under the laws of most states, homosexuals, epileptics, criminals, the mentally retarded, and the insane, mostly from institutions and asylums, could be forcibly sterilized. Even when consent was required, it was often a quid pro quo for obtaining the release of an institution.
While sterilizations were still practiced well beyond WWII, the Holocaust and mass forced sterilization in Nazi Germany (a practice influenced by American practices) helped to end popular support for the sterilization, and the 1960s and 1970s saw the repeal of most state eugenics laws. In 2013, North Carolina became the first state to regret its eugenic history by creating a victims compensation fund still alive.
Information on the 32 states with sterilization programs – including the number and sex of victims, years of program operation, and specific details on the laws and practices of each state – is taken from research conducted by two groups of specialized students at the University of Vermont as edited and modified by Lutz Kaelber, associate professor of sociology at the university.