Wisconsin’s Strange History of State-Sponsored Sterilization

“It would be a rare phenomenon if the progeny of two mentally deficient parents were not likewise deficient. Yet in every state there are hundreds such in the pauper class free to bear children of whom a large percentage are certain to have criminal tendencies, murderous proclivities or vicious social traits. The public expense and private property loss they cause is beyond computation, and their presence at large is a menace that grows with the spreading branches of their family tree. What’s to be done?  ‘Well’, says Mr. John Average Public, ‘Why not try a safe and sane compulsory human sterilization law conservatively administered as in Wisconsin?’”

Frank C. Richmond, State Director of Psychiatric Field Services, 1934

The Law

People tend to be shocked when I tell them that the last state-sponsored sterilization in Wisconsin took place in 1963. It gives one a lot of cognitive dissonance imaging that some surgeon could have performed a coerced salpingectomy one afternoon and then popped over to the cinema to watch The Birds.  But so it was, and the law that permitted such operations actually stayed on the books until 1978. Although estimating the exact number has proven difficult, between 1,500 and 2,000 people were sterilized by the state under the Wisconsin Sterilization Act.

The passage of the act in 1913 was a victory long in the making for proponents of the practice of eugenics.  Wisconsin prided itself on using science to guide state policy, and eugenics was endorsed as science by representatives from the University and beyond. Writing a half-century later, Rudolph J. Vecoli documented in fascinating detail how “the congruity between  the eugenic doctrines and  certain aspects of the Progressive mentality,” including the Wisconsin Idea of connecting university and government, folded neatly into the creation of a law to restrict the freedom of its citizens to reproduce. Nonetheless in the early years of the 20th Century sterilization remained controversial and politically risky.  A law preventing the unfit from marrying had been passed in 1907, but it was unpopular and fated to be overturned in the courts the following year.  In the intervening years, two bills that would have codified state-sponsored sterilization had been defeated in the legislature. The 1913 bill succeeded in part because it was promoted as a conservative approach that would not take the extreme measures that had been seen in other states (then as now, a lot could be achieved in Wisconsin politics with by rallying around shared distaste for Illinois).

EugenicsPoster1926

Education poster from 1926 (source)

Wisconsin was the eleventh state to legalize compulsory sterilization, but it was not the last.  Thirty-two states passed sterilization laws in the 20th century, and five more generated a historical record of involuntary sterilizations without the blessing of the legislature. Wisconsin is an instructive case precisely because it kept the scope of its sterilizations narrow.  While other states defined the unfit broadly or loosely, and some used sterilization as a punishment for criminals and sex offenders (in Oregon men could be castrated for having sex with other men), Wisconsin separated the concept of sterilization from punishment.  The law outlined only three conditions that justified it: epilepsy, insanity, and “mental deficiency.”

Wisconsin’s law represents one of the least extreme cases of government regulation of fertility, and as such it is among the most instructive. In his book Breeding Contempt: The History of Coerced Sterilization in the United States, Mark Largent notes that in historical debates surrounding sterilization, “Even the most aggressive opponents of coerced sterilization often set aside some particularly problematic group for the procedures,” and the same might be said to be true today. People with cognitive disabilities are often made to occupy that role of the particularly problematic group for whom an exception might be made to the concepts of autonomy and the right to reproduce, opening a back door to legitimization of coerced sterilization.  Of the three medical conditions made explicit in the law, mental deficiency provided the rationale for surgery in the overwhelming majority of cases, perhaps because it was the most acceptable.  As it was put by one prominent supporter of the law, University of Wisconsin professor of sociology E.A. Ross, “The wedge should have a very thin end indeed. Sterilization should at first be applied only to extreme cases…As the public become accustomed to it, and it is seen to be salutary and humane, it will be possible gradually to extend its scope until it fills its legitimate sphere of application.” Continue reading

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