In Straus Public Lecture, Straus Fellow Desmond King reveals dark history of US eugenics policy

While policies based on eugenics are widely thought to have been eradicated after the horrors of Nazi experiments were revealed, involuntary sterilization actually persisted in the US until the late 1970s. Desmond King, a Straus Fellow at NYU Law’s Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law & Justice as well as Andrew W. Mellon Professor of American Government at the University of Oxford, illuminated this disturbing historical truth on November 12 as part of the Straus Public Lectures Series.

Desmond King

A mere four months ago, King said, North Carolina’s legislature passed a law awarding $10 million to surviving victims of the state’s eugenics policy. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, that state alone sterilized more than 7,600 women and men, and about 2,000 are estimated to be alive now.

“This is all surprisingly recent history about a public policy many commentators assume ended with World War II,” said King, who explained that, although eugenics had fallen out of popular favor by the 1930s, at the end of that decade fewer than half of the eventual total number of involuntary sterilizations in the US had occurred. (The practice had been upheld by the Supreme Court in the notorious 1927 case Buck v. Bell; referring to the compulsory sterilization of Carrie Buck, who had been falsely labeled as “feebleminded” along with her daughter and mother; Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”)

Why the continuation of such a troubled policy? King attributed it to several factors, including institutional continuity in the facilities where the sterilizations occurred, the reactivation of eugenic campaigns by determined activists using new rationales (including protecting the right of unborn children not to be feebleminded), and the incorporation of sterilization into the Great Society antipoverty programs of the 1960s.

“Eugenics resonated so loudly because it granted legitimacy through nothing less than science itself to people’s fears and prejudice,” said King. “It had the endorsement of the Supreme Court. And these fears didn’t just vanish overnight.”

Tragically, the broadening sweep of federal welfare in the 1960s subjected more African Americans to involuntary sterilization than had been the case in earlier decades, as certain states informed welfare recipients that sterilization was a condition of continuing to receive benefits. The desegregation of mental health facilities that performed compulsory sterilizations made African Americans more vulnerable still to the practice. In 1974, the US District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in Relf v. Weinberger against the use of federal funds for involuntary sterilization, as well as the coercion of destitute women by threatening to end welfare benefits if they did not comply. The case exposed the fact that 100,000 to 150,000 poor people were sterilized annually with federal funds, leading the government to cease the practice once and for all. During the decades-long period in which involuntary sterilizations were performed, about 30 different states had eugenics policies. Although compulsory sterilization was highly concentrated in the South in its later years, it also occurred as far north as Oregon and, outside of the US, in Alberta, Canada. California and Virginia each sterilized more people than North Carolina did, but the latter state had the most aggressive program.

Eugenic philosophy is hopelessly intertwined with ideas of class and racial hierarchies, King said, adding that, although some sterilizations may not have been technically involuntary, “the distinction really becomes nonexistent when those responsible for its maintenance were quite strong advocates.” As for lessons to carry forward, he mentioned North Carolina's proposed traveling exhibition to educate the state's citizens about its unfortunate past. Beyond that, King offered the question: “Are there modern programs about which we should raise alarm bells, or should we simply attend to the broader issues of power and the position of the weak in our society?”

Posted on November 21, 2013