Forced Sterilization in the United States

Eugenics and Forced Sterilization in the U.S.

Although the practice is usually associated with Nazi Germany, North Korea, and other oppressive regimes, it was the U.S. that first introduced forced sterilization laws. They were written in accordance with eugenic culture during the Antebellum Period. Here's a timeline of some of the more notable events since 1849.


Report on proposed sterilization law.
Harry H. Laughlin/ Wikipedia Commons

Gordon Lincecum, a famed Texas biologist and physician, proposed a bill mandating the eugenic sterilization of the mentally handicapped and others whose genes he deemed undesirable. Although the legislation was never sponsored or brought up for a vote, it represented the first serious attempt in U.S. history to use forced sterilization for eugenic purposes.


Michigan's state legislature became the first in the country to pass a forced sterilization law, but it was ultimately vetoed by the governor.


Legislators in Pennsylvania attempted to pass a eugenic forced sterilization law, but it stalled. 


Indiana became the first state in the country to successfully pass a mandatory forced sterilization law impacting the "feebleminded," a term used at the time to refer to the mentally handicapped. 


California and Washington passed mandatory sterilization laws.


Harry Hamilton Laughlin, director of the Eugenics Research Office, proposed a federal mandatory sterilization law. Like Lincecum's proposal, it never really went anywhere.


The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in Buck v. Bell that laws mandating the sterilization of the mentally handicapped did not violate the Constitution. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes made an explicitly eugenic argument in writing for the majority: 

"It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind."


Nazi propaganda defended Germany's forced sterilization program by citing the U.S. as an ally in the eugenic movement. World War II and the atrocities committed by the Nazi government would rapidly change U.S. attitudes towards eugenics.


The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously against an Oklahoma law targeting some felons for sterilization while excluding white-collar criminals. The plaintiff in the 1942 Skinner v. Oklahoma case was Jack T. Skinner, a chicken thief. The majority opinion, written by Justice William O. Douglas, rejected the broad eugenic mandate previously outlined in Buck v. Bell in 1927: 

"[S]trict scrutiny of the classification which a State makes in a sterilization law is essential, lest unwittingly, or otherwise, invidious discriminations are made against groups or types of individuals in violation of the constitutional guaranty of just and equal laws."


The Nixon administration dramatically increased Medicaid-funded sterilization of low-income Americans, primarily those of color. While these sterilizations were voluntary as a matter of policy, anecdotal evidence later suggested that they were often involuntary as a matter of practice. Patients were frequently misinformed or left uninformed regarding the nature of the procedures that they'd agreed to undergo.


A survey conducted by Family Planning Perspectives found that approximately 70 percent of American hospitals failed to adequately follow U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines regarding informed consent in cases of sterilization.


1981 is commonly listed as the year in which Oregon performed the last legal forced sterilization in U.S. history. However, forced sterilizations have continued in more recent years. For instance, according to a report by The Guardian, California has been forcibly sterilizing people (in this case, in prisons) as recently as 2010; the state approved a budget in 2021 for reparations to those who were sterilized without consent.

The Concept of Eugenics

Merriam-Webster defines eugenics as "a science that tries to improve the human race by controlling which people become parents."

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Head, Tom. "Forced Sterilization in the United States." ThoughtCo, Aug. 9, 2021, Head, Tom. (2021, August 9). Forced Sterilization in the United States. Retrieved from Head, Tom. "Forced Sterilization in the United States." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).