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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, where we are now, and the work that we need to do together to recognize and celebrate the diversity of each individual.

Last 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 North Dakota’s history.

North Dakota’s sterilization law was enacted in 1913, after being passed in the House (73 to 20) and the Senate (34 to 4) and being signed into law by Governor L. B. Hanna. It was “an act to prevent procreation of confirmed criminals, insane, idiots, defectives, and rapists; providing for a board of medical examiners and making a provision for carrying out of same”.  Over 60% of sterilizations in North Dakota (634 out of a cumulative 1,049 up to January of 1964) were done at the Grafton Developmental Center (now called the North Dakota Developmental Center).  In 1914, the Jamestown State Hospital began to routinely sterilize its ‘inmates,’ due to the common belief that their ‘deficient and degenerate mentality’ would be handed down to any descendant. Sterilization was carried out on female patients for many years”.  In 1927 the legislature passed a law that provided for the sterilization of the “feeble-minded, insane, epileptic, habitual criminals, and sexual perverts”. This law also gave those approved for sterilization fifteen days to appeal their case. Leaders of various state institutions for the “socially deficient” could recommend sterilization to the State board of examiners, consisting of three surgeons, which could conduct a hearing and make a decision.  In 1961, “another revision of the law dropped individuals with epilepsy from the bill.” The law was repealed in 1965.

There is little information on opposition to the sterilizations in North Dakota. It is clear from the fact that sterilizations were very conservative in the initial decade after the 1913 law was passed.   Although some superintendents were adamantly pro-sterilization, there were many who were less active and more cautious about the sterilization selection procedure and actually completing the operations. It is also clear that during times of economic downturn and financial pressures, people became less likely to question the sterilizations. Freedom Friday, November 29, 2013 will look at the Minnesota’s sterilization laws.

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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