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Published on Friday, July 21, 2000 in Neue Zuricher Zeitung (Switzerland)
Dark Chapter of American History:
U.S. Court Battle Over Forced Sterilization
by Christa Piotrowski
Last spring a Michigan court rejected, because the statute of limitations had expired, the suit of a man who had been sterilized at the age of 18, ostensibly on the grounds of feeble-mindedness. But the case cast light on a largely forgotten chapter of America's past: the compulsory sterilization of tens of thousands of people for "eugenic" reasons. America's eugenics laws served as a model for the racial laws passed by the Nazis in Germany.

Fred Aslin was 10 years old in 1936, when he was confined to the Lapeer State School, a closed psychiatric facility in the state of Michigan. His eight siblings were confined there as well. His father had died shortly before, and his mother was unable to care for the children on her own. Aslin, a former farmer in Indiana, had never understood exactly why he and his siblings were thrown into a psychiatric clinic, since neither he nor they were in any way mentally handicapped. "But we were poor, and we were Indians," he notes. At the age of 18, he was sterilized against his will, as were four of his siblings.

Tens of Thousands Affected

In 1996, Aslin requested his files (to which he was entitled under the Public Information Act) and learned for the first time how the authorities had justified the forced sterilizations. "They termed us feeble-minded idiots, and wrote that our children would be like us or even worse," he declares. He was so infuriated at the insult that he filed suit against the state of Michigan, seeking compensation. His claim was turned down last March because the statute of limitations had expired. But Aslin intends to fight on. If a higher court accepts his appeal, the consequences could be far-reaching. For Fred Aslin and his siblings were not an isolated case.

From 1907 onward, at least 60,000 Americans were sterilized against their will. The legal basis for these forced sterilizations was provided by so-called eugenics laws. Most compulsory sterilizations occurred in the 1930s and '40s, but some states, such as Virginia, continued the practice until the late 1970s. Most of the victims were poor and members of minorities, and none of them received compensation, according to Paul Lombardo, professor of law and bioethics at the University of Virginia.

A Strong Eugenics Movement in the USA

It is not widely known that there was a strong eugenics movement not only in Germany, but in the USA as well. The doctrine, hatched in the second half of the 19th century, combined elements of social Darwinism with the Mendelian theory of heredity. Its advocates pushed for perfecting the human "gene pool" by influencing the reproductive process. Their ongoing attempts at achieving a "perfect" society included aggressive - and in the case of the Nazis, murderous - actions against marginal groups and minorities.

American scientists played a vanguard role in the eugenics movement, which also had its supporters in Scandinavia, Latin America and Japan. U.S. biologists like Charles B. Davenport and Harry H. Laughlin advocated keeping the "Anglo-American race" pure. Their premise was that most ailments, as well as such social problems as poverty and criminality, were hereditary in nature. Therefore persons with a "good genetic makeup" should be encouraged to have families, while "inferior" people of allegedly poor genetic stock should be prevented from reproducing. Among those people regarded as inferior were epileptics, manic-depressives, prostitutes, alcoholics, the homeless and criminals. Under the eugenics laws, people who came to the negative attention of the social authorities could be branded as "feeble-minded" by court order and legally forced to undergo steriliziation.

A Model for the Nazis

By the early 1930s, some 30 American states had adopted eugenics laws. Most of them were modeled after the law which Harry H. Laughlin had drafted for the state of Virginia in 1924. That legislation found emulators outside the United States too. For example, it served Germany's National Socialists as a model for their 1933 "Law for Protection Against Genetically Defective Offspring," on the basis of which at least 400,000 men and women were forcibly sterilized. More than 200,000 handicapped or allegedly handicapped people were also murdered by the Nazis. The University of Heidelberg was apparently so grateful to eugenicist Laughlin that it awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1936 for his "services on behalf of racial hygiene."

In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of Virginia's sterilization law. This was followed by a swift rise in the number of forced sterilizations in the United States. American eugenicists also pushed for anti-immigration measures and stricter laws to prevent racially mixed marriages. In a speech to the U.S. Congress, Laughlin had argued that "morally and intellectually inferior" immigrants from eastern and southern Europe were polluting America's genetic potential. The 1924 Immigration Restriction Act reduced by two thirds the immigration quotas for people from those parts of Europe. In signing the new law, President Calvin Coolidge said: "America must remain American."

Pseudo-Science at Universities

For a time, the doctrine of eugenics exerted considerable influence on American society. Based largely on political and social prejudices, the pseudo-science was taught at schools and universities. Leading institutions, such as Harvard, Cornell and Columbia, offered courses in eugenics. Prominent industrialists like cornflakes magnate J. H. Kellogg supported the creation of eugenics groups and organizations. So-called fitter family contests were held at country fairs, with citizens parading their "good genes." Movies like "The Black Stork" propagated eugenic sterilization.

During the 1940s, however, the theory of eugenics came under increasing criticism because of its racial prejudices and its lack of scientific foundation. Most American sterilization laws were abandoned during the 1950s. In 1980, former psychiatric patients who had been forced into sterilization banded together for a class-action suit, demanding compensation from the state of Virginia. But a federal judge rejected their suit on the grounds that the U.S. Supreme Court had affirmed the constitutionality of sterilization back in 1927. That Supreme Court ruling was never fought, even in subsequent years. As a result, future damage claims have little prospect of success. And the victims of eugenic forced sterilization have no lobbying power to achieve out-of-court settlements.

Two current exhibits are attempting to shed light on this repressed chapter of American history. The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, in cooperation with the Goethe Institute, is showing an exhibition of photographs and documents titled "Polluting the Pure." And the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory, a genetics research institute in the state of New York, is featuring an online exhibit on the history of the American eugenics movement.* Between 1910 and 1940, the venerable Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory on Long Island housed the Eugenics Record Office, the central research facility of the American eugenics movement. Most of the exhibit's 1,200 documents come from its archives.


© AG für die Neue Zürcher Zeitung NZZ 2000


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