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The Long Tail of America's Eugenics Problem

The history of America’s eugenics programs has resurfaced in the public spotlight in recent years.
The Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, one California prison where forced sterilization allegedly occurred. Via CDCR

Eugenics—the idea that the reproduction of human beings can be artificially managed to select for desired genetic traits—is one of the great shames of modern history. And while the concept is commonly attributed to Nazi Germany’s obsession with racial purity, recent events in California stand as a reminder that the United States has a long history of eugenics programs as well.

After Darwin broke new ground with the theory of natural selection, it was only a matter of time before somebody misapplied the idea to human beings. The resultant “social Darwinism” and its applied branch, eugenics, were virulent memes in the late 19th and early 20th century—achieving their murderous apex in the Second World War.


The US’s own eugenics obsession predated Hitler’s rise to power by decades. From 1907 to 1979, in a dark history that is only recently being assessed, America forcibly sterilized an estimated 60,000 people. While forcible sterilization programs—which attempted to keep the poor and undesirables from passing on their genes, and were clearly the product of eugenics—no longer officially exist in any of the 50 states (Oregon performed the last in 1981), forcible sterilization is still happening, as evidenced by recent revelations in California prisons.

Beginning in the late 19th century, America’s national eugenics program received funding from many of the country’s largest corporate concerns, including from the Carnegie Institution, Rockefeller Foundation, J. H. Kellogg, Proctor and Gamble, Hanes and the Harriman railroad fortune. Proponents of eugenics (including Alexander Graham Bell and Luther Burbank) concluded that individuals with higher social standing were inherently genetically superior, and pushed not only for forced sterilization of the poor, disabled and “immoral” but also immigration restriction and anti-miscegenation laws. Even alcoholism was a trait targeted for elimination via eugenics.

From 1909 to 1964, California was the United States’ top sterilizer, forcing surgery on over 20,000 men and women under a statewide eugenics program so successful that even the Nazis asked for California’s advice in the 1930s. The state’s early eugenics program was justified as a way to save money by reducing welfare and relief.


Forced sterilizations of prisoners, the poor and the mentally ill were only officially banned in California in 1979. A report published earlier this month by the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that, at least in California, sterilization continued sporadically with female prison inmates up to 2010.

But California was by no means the only state severing the reproductive systems of its own citizens—32 states in the US passed laws allowing forcible sterilization in the early part of the 20th century, beginning with Indiana in 1907. North Carolina was a particularly egregious case: the state is recorded as having sterilized 1,110 men and 6,418 women between 1929 and 1974. 40% of those operated on were people of color, and 60% were white; a third of the women sterilized were under the age of 18, all the way down to the age of 9.

Widespread academic support for eugenics meant there were 376 university courses offered on the subject by 1928 among the country’s top schools, with more than 20,000 students enrolled. Feminist and women’s associations were also staunch proponents of eugenics.

The program was conducted as a response to a slow economy and high population rate.

The US even partnered with Puerto Rico to sterilize more than a third of the island’s women between 1930 and 1970—Puerto Ricans referred to sterilization, which was given to women for free upon entering the workforce, as “La Operacion.”


The program was conducted as a response to a slow economy and high population rate, targeting working-class women the government felt were too stupid to use contraception.

US pharmaceutical corporations also conducted early trials of the birth control pill in Puerto Rico in the 1950s before achieving FDA approval, leading to three casualties. (Margaret Sanger, a primary American champion of birth control and founder of Planned Parenthood, was a major proponent of sterilization, believing it would prevent unplanned children from being born into poverty, as well as preventing the spread of disease and disabilities.)

Jane Lawrence, writing in American Indian Quarterly, alleged that the Indian Health Service sterilized over 25 percent of Native American women between the ages of 15-44 in the 1960s and 70s. The sterilizations were conducted, according to Lawrence, not just for population control but also to give doctors practice in performing gynecological surgery.

The history of America’s eugenics programs has resurfaced in the public spotlight in recent years. 2003 saw California’s then-Governor Gray Davis issue a formal apology for the program. Some states, like North Carolina, are considering reparations, although action has been slow coming.

For those who’ve lived their lives on the right side of the American dream, the sterilization programs may come as a shock, a corrosive instance of “it can’t happen here” that did happen here. But for those who’ve already seen how ugly and brutal America’s dark side can be, it may come as no surprise at all. And reparations or no, for those who underwent sterilization—many of which are still alive—the damage is permanent.