Inmate Sterilization and Eugenics

According to a report from the Center for Investigative Reporting, between 2006 and 2010, some 148 pregnant women were given tubal ligations (there may have been another 100 before this period). The claim: the sterilizations were conducted without the required state approvals and often as a product of coercion.

Some rationalized the sterilizations by citing the potential risks of future pregnancies for women who have had multiple Caesarean sections. But there was another justification. As one of the key actors explained, the overall costs ($147,460) were minimal given the benefits:

“Over a 10-year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children – as they procreated more.”

One of the former inmates who had worked in the infirmary stated things a bit more clearly:

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s not right’… Do they think they’re animals, and they don’t want them to breed anymore?”

Slate’s coverage describes “a system of bullying and frightening women into agreeing to sterilizations they did not want.” Some of it was rationalized through claims that the sterilizations were “an empowerment issue for female inmates, providing them the same options as women on the outside” (I have a hard time connecting the dots between coercion and empowerment). Others justified the practice by spouting “right-wing urban legends about people who ‘want’ to be in prison for the supposedly great health care” and thus continue to get pregnant.

Unlike Slate, the Center for Investigative Reporting places these practices in the broader historical perspective:

California still grapples with an ugly past: Under compulsory sterilization laws here and in 31 other states, minority groups, the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill and criminals were singled out as inferior and sterilized to prevent them from spreading their genes.

It was known as eugenics.

Between 1909 and 1964, about 20,000 women and men in California were stripped of the ability to reproduce – making the state the nation’s most prolific sterilizer. Historians say Nazi Germany sought the advice of the state’s eugenics leaders in the 1930s.

To find the historical origins of eugenics in the United States, one needs to turn to the Progressive Era. Many key progressives made the argument that eugenics (including race-based immigration policy, incarceration and forced sterilization) would improve the quality of human nature.  After all, human nature was not fixed and flawed. Rather it was malleable and could be improved through state action, as informed by science and social science.

For those who are interested in a quick history of Progressive eugenics, see Thomas C. Leonard’s “Eugenics and Economics in the Progressive Era.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Fall 2005. Leonard gives a good taste of the claims of “race suicide” and the arguments that were being made by intellectuals during this period. Consider Irving Fisher:

In his Elementary Principles, Irving Fisher (1907, p. 715) declared that “if the vitality or vital capital is impaired by a breeding of the worst and a cessation of the breeding of the best, no greater calamity could be imagined.” Fortunately, said Fisher, eugenics offered a means, “by isolation in public institutions and in some cases by surgical operation,” to prevent the calamity of “inheritable taint.” (p. 212)

Or economist Frank Fetter, who proclaimed before the American Economic Association (1907):

“Unless effective means are found to check the degeneration of the race, the noontide of humanity’s greatness is nigh, if not already passed. Our optimism must be based not upon laissez-faire but upon vigorous application of science, humanity, and legislative art to the solution of the problem.” (p. 217)

The rejection of laissez-faire was combined with a new faith in social engineering. As Leonard notes: “Eugenic ideas were not new in the Progressive Era, but they acquired new impetus with the Progressive Era advent of a more expansive government. In effect, the expansion of state power meant that it became possible to have not only eugenic thought, but also eugenic practice.”

While some of the quotations provided by the Center for Investigative Reporting reflect a form of crude eugenics, there is little to suggest that these sterilizations were part of a larger policy. Yet, rather than connecting the practice to “right wing urban legends,” it is useful to see them in light of the larger historical context, one in which the combination of science, state power, and hubris led a majority of states to seek ways of eliminating the unfit.

4 thoughts on “Inmate Sterilization and Eugenics

  1. Human eugenics (based on genetics as it more or less says on the tin) is nonsense. However compulsory sterilisation as punishment or to avoid future costs could work. Not saying it’s right, just that the eugenics argument is not particularly relevant, although it’s a great straw man if that’s all you’re looking for.

    1. Compulsory sterilization of criminals to avoid future costs? I am assuming you are referring to the costs imposed on taxpayers by a criminal’s children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc. Compulsory sterilization would prevent the costs (e.g., welfare payments, costs related to crimes) by preventing criminals from reproducing. That, my friend, is an argument steeped in eugenics.

      1. Not really – let me re-express it: the genetics aspect doesn’t work, but the social engineering aspect might. Nowadays in many jurisdictions abortion is permitted when the foetus suffers from some disorder. Even if the disorder is genetically determined this approach if applied to all pregnancies will not in general breed out the disorder.
        However, if a criminal is prevented from having children then it could be that we avoid the costs associated with looking after these children (if the criminal won’t or can’t) or those associated with the children themselves becoming criminals -not because of genetics, but related to their upbringing or environment. It’s a possibility, and has nothing to do with eugenics.

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