Breeding Better Citizens: Forced Sterilization in the U.S.
A Hidden Chapter of American History

ABC News 03/22/00

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In 1934, Adolf Hitler’s chilling quest for superior humans was becoming a reality.

He had secured passage of a new law in Germany that authorized the sterilization of “feebleminded” men and women, and within months the Nazis had operated on thousands of people.

Although Hitler’s philosophy and practices would eventually be repudiated globally, it may be a surprise to many that at the same time, people were being sterilized for similar reasons in the United States.

The Eugenics Movement
It was all part of a movement called eugenics that took a scientific approach to creating a genetically superior race. The idea was that by sterilizing people considered “mental defectives,” societal problems, such as poverty and crime, would be reduced.

Eugenics became a popular concept, and at its height, it infused many areas of American culture. There were magazines such as Eugenics Quarterly, and many state fairs featured contests searching for “Fitter Families” and “Better Babies.” The topic even became the central theme of some movies.

With the support of many prominent Americans, the movement gained such momentum that 35 states had laws on forced sterilization. The idea was even endorsed by the Supreme Court in the 1927 Buck vs. Bell decision, in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

As eugenics swept across the country, an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 people were sterilized. Many of these people did not have any mental illness.

One Man’s Tragic Secret
One man who has carried this dark secret with him was Fred Aslin. When Aslin was a boy in 1936, his father died, leaving his mother to bring up nine children. For unknown reasons, Michigan state representatives deemed her unable to care for her children, and they were taken to a state mental institution and left there.

When Aslin was first admitted, doctors’ reports labeled him “a feebleminded moron,” but during his years at the institution, he received glowing reports from his teachers. Nevertheless, the “feebleminded” label stuck, and when Aslin turned 18 he was told that he would be sterilized.

“I [didn’t] want anybody cutting on me … and they knew I wasn’t crazy … they knew I wasn’t retarded,” says Aslin. Although he protested, a court order supported the surgery, and he was sterilized.

Checking courthouse records, 20/20 producers were not able to find Aslin’s original documents, but they did come across hundreds of files on sterilizations that were authorized for a wide range of reasons.

Families Confront Past
Producers also researched records in Indiana and discovered that state even had a Committee on Mental Defectives, which was partially funded by the state Legislature. This committee culled information from data submitted by doctors, teachers and government officials. College-educated surveyors would also go to individual homes throughout the state and write reports on possible mentally defective families of Indiana.

In the committee’s 1918 report to the governor, it defined “mental defective” as including the insane, epileptics and the “feebleminded.” It claimed that mental defects were “transmitted from parent to offspring.” It also classified three grades of “feeblemindedness”: idiot, imbecile and moron.

While these reports were thought to be thorough, modern experts have said they were heavily tainted by the prejudices of the researchers who wrote them.

Many of the people described in these reports were spared sterilization as the Committee of Mental Defectives ran out of funding. The organization’s research, however, was kept intact. 20/20 found many descendants of some people mentioned in the Indiana reports, and many families were shocked to discover what was written about their relatives.

The eugenics movement now seems very un-American, but it is indeed part of the nation’s past. And even though its proponents believed they were “fostering a public good,” scientists and historians affiliated with the DNA Learning Center of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory feel differently.

Concerned by the impact of eugenics on people like Fred Aslin, they believe “the coercive tactics of eugenics — race separation, marriage restriction, immigration restriction, and sterilization — fly in the face of current ideals for a compassionate, pluralistic society.”