True to Mendel's Law?: The Impact of Eugenic Sterilization, 1916-1949
Student Researcher: Danielle Gemperline
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Padraic Kennedy
Abstract: During the early twentieth century, medical professionals, scientists, and progressive reformers involved in the eugenics movement believed that people with inherently inferior genetics threatened the prosperity of society. In response to this perceived danger, many states adopted compulsory sterilization policies to restrict the reproductive ability of individuals considered mentally ill and/or disabled. Frequently, these programs targeted patients diagnosed with “feeblemindedness” (a term loosely corresponding with intellectual disability) that disproportionately affected impoverished women. After the American eugenics movement reached its apex between the 1920s and the 1930s, the Americans’ realization of the Nazi regime’s horrific crimes discredited eugenics in the 1940s. However, compulsory sterilization continued throughout the United States for several decades. Although historians have addressed forced sterilization from several angles, further research can enhance scholars’ understanding of this topic. Previous scholarly publications contain detailed descriptions of the victims’ characteristics as well as the geographic scope, the timeline, and the international context of eugenics. However, the literature fails to provide a comprehensive study on how compulsory sterilization programs affected victims’ lives. Therefore, I decided to enhance the existing historiography by researching the impact of sterilization on the disabled from the 1920s through the 1940s. Upon analyzing a variety of primary sources including archival documents, scientific studies, newspaper articles, and court records, I discovered two conflicting narratives claiming to represent the effects of involuntary sterilization. While eugenics advocates claimed that compulsory sterilization benefited a patient’s life, ample evidence reveals that these operations inflicted trauma, humiliation, and emotional pain on victims.