Sexual sterilization can be effected through various surgical operations designed to prevent a person from reproducing. In its most radical form, sterilization involves castration, which is the removal of the testes (male) or ovaries (female) and the consequent destruction of the capacity to produce human germ cells (sperm or ova). Late in the nineteenth century advances in surgical technique provided alternatives to castration as the sole means of sterilizing humans. These new operations were simpler for surgeons to perform, were less dangerous for patients to endure, and had a much more limited impact on health.
In the 1880s the Scottish surgeon Lawson Tait initiated the operation of salpingectomy for women. Tait’s technique was introduced as a therapy for ectopic pregnancy, a potentially fatal condition that sometimes occurs when a fertilized ovum lodges unexpectedly in a fallopian tube. Removal of a section of each fallopian tube prevents any ovum from traveling to the uterus (womb), hence ruling out any future pregnancy.
Soon after Tait introduced salpingectomy, the Chicago surgeon Albert Ochsner developed the operation of vasectomy as a treatment for problems of the male prostate gland. Ochsner described how he removed a portion of the cord known as the vasdeferens, removing the route a sperm travels. He endorsed vasectomy as a surgical option that would avoid objections raised against castration. Ochsner’s surgery was also innovative because he specifically prescribed it as a means of preventing convicted criminals from having children. Soon the operation was being recommended as a way to prevent parenthood among chronic alcoholics, sex criminals, the mentally impaired, and the poor.
Ochsner’s technique became popularized just as the eugenics movement began to take root in the United States. The term eugenics was coined by the English scientist Francis Galton in 1883. Galton believed that most human characteristics, from physical and mental traits to moral predispositions, were inherited. Eugenics was his name for the science that aimed to increase the number of “well-born”—healthy and productive people—in future generations. Many of Galton’s followers believed, as he did, that societies should eliminate the future births of hereditarily tainted unhealthy and dependent people. The emergence of new technologies for surgical sterilization during Galton’s lifetime made that goal appear more feasible.
In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the state of Michigan debated the adoption of a law to mandate “asexualization” (castration) of some repeat criminals as well as inmates of asylums and homes for the mentally impaired to prevent the birth of children with similar disorders. That law and similar efforts in Kansas and Pennsylvania were rejected between 1897 and 1905.
Two years later the Indiana prison doctor Harry C. Sharp, working in collaboration with J. N. Hurty, secretary of the Indiana Board of Health, convinced their state legislature to adopt what became the first involuntary sterilization law in the world. Sharp had introduced vasectomy into his practice at the Indiana Reformatory as a therapy to cure male inmates of onanism or habitual masturbation. After several hundred experimental surgeries, Sharp convinced legislators that the procedure was also valuable as an efficient means to prevent the reproduction by hereditarily diseased parents of criminals and similarly “defective” children. Following Indiana’s lead, by 1926 twenty-one other states had passed laws that allowed governmental boards, commissions, or officials of state prisons, asylums, or other institutions to choose people who would be sterilized.
In 1927 the practice of salpingectomy for “eugenic” purposes was endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Buck v. Bell. The lawsuit pitted the Virginia teenager Carrie Buck against the state doctor who directed the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. Buck was sent to the colony because she was an unmarried mother—a “moral degenerate”—whose condition was supposedly inherited from her mother, Emma Buck, already a colony inmate. Testimony in the case suggested that Carrie Buck’s seven-month-old baby was abnormal as well, prompting an opinion for the Supreme Court by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. that upheld the Virginia sterilization law, concluding: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Later research disclosed that Carrie Buck had no hereditary “defects,” and her daughter Vivian eventually earned a spot on her grade-school honor roll.
With the Buck decision as precedent, ten more American states passed eugenic sterilization laws by 1937. More than 60,000 surgeries were performed in the United States under the authority of eugenics laws between 1907 and the late 1970s. Ten other laws sanctioning involuntary sterilization were enacted in countries in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. The most notable was the 1933 German law that was applied to almost 400,000 people in less than ten years.
In 1942 the U.S. Supreme Court revisited the issue of coercive sterilization, striking down an Oklahoma law that authorized surgery on habitual criminals. Jack Skinner, the prisoner who challenged the law, had convictions for armed robbery and chicken theft. He argued that no scientific evidence proved the trait of “criminality” to be an inherited characteristic. The Court overturned the sterilization law, calling it a violation of the Constitution’s equal protection clause because it applied to common crimes like Skinner’s chicken theft but provided an exception for tax evasion, embezzlement, or political graft. At the same time the Court did not disturb the Buck ruling, which stood as continued justification of operations on the disabled.
Other operations, often targeting ethnic or racial minority populations, occurred without legal sanction. Jews and the Sinti and Roma (“Gypsies”) were sterilized using X-rays or caustic chemicals as part of the Nazi death camp program of “research” during World War II (1939–1945). From the mid-1950s until the 1970s, reports surfaced of widespread sterilization of Latinas, African Americans, and American Indians in several states. In the wake of these revelations, most American laws with “eugenic” language were repealed in the 1970s. Several European countries instituted programs of restitution for victims of sterilization policies; the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia later paid reparations following lawsuits. In the United States, the Virginia General Assembly, which in 1924 had enacted the law used to sterilize Carrie Buck, became in 2001 the first state legislature to condemn the sterilization law it had passed in the name of eugenics. Apologies followed in Oregon, North and South Carolina, and California, the state where more than one-third of all U.S. sterilizations took place. In 2007, to mark the centennial of U.S. sterilization laws, both the first state to pass such a law (Indiana, 1907) and the last state (Georgia, 1937) repudiated their earlier sterilization laws. Reports of sterilization abuse focused on minority populations in Peru, the Czech Republic, and Brazil have continued to appear in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
SEE ALSO Crime and Criminology; Determinism, Biological; Determinism, Genetic; Ethics; Eugenics; Fertility, Human; Galton, Francis; Genocide; Heredity; Mental Retardation; Morality; Reparations; Reproduction; Reproductive Politics; Reproductive Rights
Kevles, Daniel J. 1985. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Lombardo, Paul A. 2003. Facing Carrie Buck. Hastings Center Report 33 (2): 14–17.
Reilly, Phillip R. 1991. The Surgical Solution: A History of Involuntary Sterilization in the United States. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Paul A. Lombardo