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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 Minnesota’s history

Minnesota’s sole sterilization law was passed on April 8, 1925, making it the seventeenth state to pass such legislature. The law was formally voluntary in nature, and would stay in the Minnesota law books almost unchanged for fifty years. Minnesota also passed a marriage law in 1901, which “forbade the marriage of any woman under the age of 45 or any man of any age that was likely to father children, if either partner was epileptic, imbecilic, feeble minded, or afflicted with insanity”.

By the 1930s, Minnesota was considered to be the most “feeble minded-conscious” state in the United States because of its comprehensive program for people living with mental disabilities“. The greatest number of sterilizations in Minnesota took place in the 1930s because relief rolls expanded due to the Depression.

In the 1930s and 1940s, sterilizations in Minnesota were rather high as a result of people’s belief that the ward had the ability to raise a family. (Before 1946, more feeble-minded people were sterilized in Minnesota and Michigan than in the entire South combined.) From 1945 on, the number of sterilizations results from the belief that surgery is not always the best way to deal with the mentally retarded. People started to care about what was best for the patients holistically, discussing their sterilizations by respecting the patients’ will. There were fewer sterilizations during World War II not because of knowledge about Nazi eugenics, but because there was a shortage of medical and nursing persons.

Support for eugenics began to fade in the 1960s as general knowledge of genetics grew. As the public became more accepting of individuals with psychiatric disabilities the field of mental health began to change, and eugenics laws began to be challenged.

Freedom Friday,Freedom Friday, December 6, 2013 will look at current sterilization laws.

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. (

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