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The Malthusian Obsession

Eugenics, American-Style

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

In 1952, Charlie Follett, a wayward orphan, was a resident of the Sonoma County State Boys Home. One day when he was 14-years old, he was taken to the hospital, told to disrobe and sit on a table. The orderly didn’t explain what was about to happen to him.

“First, they shot me with some kind of medicine. It was supposed to deaden the nerves,” Charlie Follett told the Sacramento Bee, describing his forced vasectomy. “Then the next thing I heard was snip, snip. Then when they did the other side, it seemed like they were pulling my whole insides out.”

Follett was a minor, unaware of what was happening to him or why, unable to resist or even challenge it. The state had simply decided that this teenager (and thousands of others like him) was a derelict, unworthy of the right to reproduce.

Follett was one of at least 20,000 people sterilized against their will by the state of California from 1909 to 1963, in a eugenics program explicitly geared toward ridding the state of “enfeebled” and “defective” people.

California’s eugenics program proved so efficient that in the 1930s, Nazi scientists asked California eugenicists for advice on how to run their own sterilization regime. “Germany used California’s program as its chief example that this was a working, successful policy,” says Christina Cogdell, author of Eugenic Design. “They modeled their law on California’s law.”

But California wasn’t alone. The state of Virginia forcibly sterilized 8,300 people. North Carolina sterilized 7,600 people against their will, the last in 1974. My home state of Indiana has a wretched record, with 2,500 forced sterilizations, nearly equally divided between young women and men, with most occurring between 1938 and 1953. Oregon, which had a population about half the size of Indiana, performed 2300 sterilizations, with 60 percent of them conducted on patients entombed in the barbarous state mental hospital. The sterilizations were approved by the state-sanctioned Oregon Eugenics Board. Incredibly, this board wasn’t disbanded until 1975, though the state’s eugenics program persisted until 1983.

A grim chapter of history, you say. But the era of sterilization hasn’t ended yet. It has simply migrated from state hospitals and health departments to the courts and medical offices. Take the case of Kathy Looney, a Louisiana woman convicted in 2000 of abusing three of her eight children. She was given a savage choice: either undergo medical sterilization or face lengthy jail time. Ultimately, she agreed to the sterilization and the judge issued a 10-year suspended sentence and placed Ms. Looney on five years of probation.

“I don’t want to have to lock you up to keep you from having any more children,” barked District Judge Carl V. Sharp. “So some kind of medical procedure is needed to make sure you don’t.”

In this context, the Annals of Internal Medicine published a revealing comparison by Drs. Andre N. Sofair and Lauris C. Kaldjian of German and U.S. sterilization policies from 1930 to 1945. During the years when Americans were being involuntarily sterilized as part of a multi-state eugenics program dating back to 1907, what did the leading medical journals here have to say on the topic in their editorials?

The authors reviewed the relevant periodicals only from the 1930s. Even in this narrow time frame, against the backdrop of Nazi eugenic programs, the facts are instructive. The American Journal of Medicine, the Annals of Internal Medicine and the American Journal of Psychiatry had nothing to say. The American Journal of Public Health ran one anonymous editorial on mental health that Sofair and Kaldjian described as “relevant,” probably because it suggested that rising rates of hospitalization for the mentally infirm didn’t necessarily mean that Americans’ mental IQs were falling, a belief that was exploited by the advocates of eugenic sterilization.

A special committee convened by the American Neurological Association endorsed the widely held view that mentally “defective” people were a drain on national resources. The committee took a positive view of “feeblemindedness,” on the grounds that it breeds “servile, useful people who do the dirty work of the race.” The committee reviewed the Germany sterilization law of 1933, and praised it for precision and scientific grounding.

The editorial record of the New England Journal in the early 1930s was dreadful. Editorials lamented the supposed increase in the rate of American feeblemindedness as dangerous, and the economic burden of supporting the mentally feeble as “appalling.” In 1934, The Journal’s editor, Morris Fishbein, wrote that “Germany is perhaps the most progressive nation in restricting fecundity among the unfit,” and argued that the “individual must give way to the greater good.”

While researching our book Whiteout, I came across a remarkable federal court opinion on sterilizations of the poor. In 1974, U.S. District Court Judge Gerhard Gesell wrote that “over the last few years, an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 low-income persons have been sterilized annually in federally-funded programs.”

Gesell pointed out that though Congress had decreed that family planning programs function on a voluntary basis, “an indefinite number of poor people have been improperly coerced into accepting a sterilization operation under the threat that various federally funded benefits would be withdrawn. … Patients receiving Medicaid assistance at childbirth are evidently the most frequent targets of this pressure.”

Starting in the early 1990s, poor women were allowed Medicaid funding to have Norplant inserted into their arms; then, when they complained of pain and other unwelcome side effects, they were told no funding was available to have the Norplant rods taken out. Here, therefore, was a new species of involuntary sterilization, implemented under the approving gaze of Bill and Hillary Clinton, who later imposed their cruel Malthusian obsession on the destitute women of Haiti.

In the coming age of austerity, as poverty, homelessness and hunger take deep root across the Republic, the eugenic impulse is almost certain to reemerge, probably dressed in the old progressive guise of social improvement and economic benevolence.

Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of NatureGrand Theft Pentagon and Born Under a Bad Sky. His latest book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net