The Ugly History of Forced Sterilization

A former nurse at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center has alleged that hysterectomies are being performed on detainees without informed consent. The problem of medical care within prison environments is always a difficult one, as it’s not clear that meaningful consent can ever be assured under such vulnerable conditions. (Does the prisoner fear punishment or worse if they don’t go along with the procedure?) Yet, denying potentially lifesaving medical interventions is also clearly an egregious abuse of power. The only clear solution to this problem is to take ten giant steps back on the process of incarcerating (or “detaining”) people who do not present an imminent threat to others, starting with those being held for nonviolent offenses.

The possibility that detained women are being given unnecessary hysterectomies particularly raises the hackles because of the United States’ history of forced sterilizations. An estimated 70,000 people were sterilized in the United States between roughly 1907 and the mid-1980s. This was usually based on a determination that they were “diseased” in some way, including by being mentally or physically handicapped, and that therefore the powers that be were justified in preventing them from having children. Not surprisingly, racial and ethnic minorities, people living in poverty, and women deemed promiscuous were particular targets.

The best book I know of on the policies and beliefs that enabled this disturbing practice is Thomas Leonard’s book on the history of eugenics, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era. Eugenics is often confused with Darwinism, but in fact is almost the opposite. Darwinian natural selection is a scientific theory that predicts that genetic traits that are more supportive of survival and reproduction than others will be more likely to be passed on. Eugenics is a political belief that as societies become wealthier, they will need to take an active role in discouraging the survival of “deficient” people in order to prevent the reproduction of mental and physical weaknesses. The view that eastern European ancestry was a genetic trait worth protecting was a shockingly popular motivation behind a great number of policy decisions in the early 20th century, including minimum wage (to disemploy minorities and lower classes), restrictions on women’s work (to prevent white women from working instead of raising children), and—most germane to this latest ICE scandal—immigration quotas and controls (designed to keep out people from Asia and the “undesirable” parts of Europe, including Italy, Poland, Hungary, Russia, Greece, and pretty much anywhere with a sizable Jewish population).

And when I say eugenics was popular, I mean popular. Eugenics was a fashionable belief considered to be based on the latest science. U.S. Presidents (including Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson), Supreme Court Justices, prominent intellectuals, progressive activists, and industrialists alike believed in and even advocated for some form of eugenics. It was a matter that crossed the political aisle, uniting conservatives and progressives in a stunning display of illiberality. There are disturbing quotes throughout the book, but perhaps one of the most shocking comes from novelist D.H. Lawrence, who wrote in a personal letter,

“If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band  playing  softly,  and  a  Cinematograph  working  brightly,  and  then  I’d  go  out  in  back  streets  and  main  streets  and  bring  them  all  in,  all  the  sick,  the  halt,  and  the  maimed;  I  would lead them gently, and they would smile at me” (p. 114).

Further, dissent wasn’t easy. Leonard recounts one geneticist having an offer to join the Harvard faculty pulled because he came out against eugenics (p. 111-12). The economist Irving Fisher compared denying the truth of eugenics to denying that the earth orbits the sun (p. 113). Notice that all these example are from just a few pages of Leonard’s book, which is slim but stuffed with evidence.

The history of forced sterilization is a cautionary tale for so many reasons. But an underappreciated lesson to take from this episode in history is that even a comfortable, popular belief can over time come to be recognized as deeply flawed, even inhumane. Many otherwise intelligent people were carried away by bad science, bigotry, or a combination of the two. This is an important reminder of the fallibility of scientific consensus and the dangers of using science to justify social control. I can’t think of a single instance where the judgment of history came down on the side of those who were treating any group of people as less worthy of rights, dignity, and respect because the “science” said so.

It’s unfortunately easy to neglect basic human rights in the area of immigration policy. People who are in a country but lack access to whatever rights and judicial protections otherwise enable people to defend themselves from political abuse are always vulnerable. This means that even if these hysterectomies are coming from a single bad actor, this is exactly the environment where we would expect that person to be able to do damage.

In addition to Leonard’s book, here is another set of useful readings if you’d like to learn more about the history of eugenics. I would also highly recommend Sandra Peart and Daniel Levy’s Escape from Democracy: The Role of Experts and the Public in Economic Policy, in which the eugenics movement is offered as one of many examples of the disastrous results of expert-driven social control.

 

 

Jayme Lemke is a Senior Research Fellow and Associate Director of Academic and Student Programs at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a Senior Fellow in the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.

 


As an Amazon Associate, Econlib earns from qualifying purchases.