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Sometimes in order to heal, we need to bear witness to where we were.  To develop an appreciation and gratitude for the progress that has been made and the progress that still needs to be accomplished.  But that can only occur if we know where we’ve been, were we are now, and the work that we need to do together to recognize and celebrate the diversity of each individual.

The last two week’s Freedom Friday introduced the persecution of people with disabilities between 1907 and 1939 in Germany and the United States.  (Between 1907 and 1939, more than 30,000 people in twenty-nine states were sterilized, many of them unknowingly or against their will, while they were incarcerated in prisons or institutions for the mentally ill.)  Today we are looking at our current sterilization laws,

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld forced sterilization in 1927, a decision that still stands today. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in the majority decision, “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…. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

In 1994, a survey of 88 parents found that 75 (85%) were willing to consider sterilization for their developmentally disabled children; 8 (10%) requested it.12 Parents cited fear about the efficacy of other methods and about pregnancy, particularly from sexual abuse. Few thought their children could want or care for a child. Perhaps most instructive, 85 (97%) said they would want medical staff to help them make the decision but not to decide for them.

In a recent report released by the National Council on Disabilities, under the subheading, “Parenting with a Disability Today: The Eugenics Movement’s Backdoor?”, a particularly disturbing case is recounted where the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health in 2011 sought a court order to force a pregnant woman with a psychiatric disability to undergo an abortion and subsequent sterilization against her will.

Even today, 22 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, several states still have some form of involuntary sterilization law on their books.

The power of the eugenics ideology persists. Women with disabilities still contend with coercive tactics designed to encourage sterilization or abortion because they are not deemed fit for motherhood. Equally alarming, a growing trend is emerging toward sterilizing people with intellectual or psychiatric disabilities.

The North Carolina legislature recently budgeted $10 million to compensate living victims — likely fewer than 200 — who were sterilized under 20th Century eugenic laws. Each person will probably receive approximately $50,000, and that state’s legislative measure will be remembered as a historic first in America. But unless other states act quickly, history will also recall that thirty-one other states had sterilization statutes, and future generations will be astounded that most of them have neither voiced a word of regret nor voted a dollar for victim compensation.

Approximately 33 other states had involuntary sterilizations laws during the same period as North Carolina’s laws. Beginning in 2002, seven states officially apologized to victims of state involuntary sterilization laws. These states are: Virginia, Oregon, Washington, South Carolina, California, Indiana, and Georgia.

Now, involuntary sterilization is recognized as a human rights violation. Most states that have considered the question have concluded that sterilization of an incompetent person requires court oversight and an individualized best-interest inquiry in order to protect the person’s fundamental right to reproductive freedom.  California leads the way, with some of the most developed laws in the nation protecting mentally disabled people’s reproductive rights.

Freedom Friday, December 13, 2013 will address the current view of disabilities.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (

University of Vermont.  Presentation on “eugenic sterilizations” in comparative perspective at the 20012 Social Science History Association. (

National Council on Disabilities.

J Reprod Med 1994;39: 701-706.

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