The state of Indiana
has just apologized for passing the first modern eugenics law
in 1907. Indiana was the leader of the progressive pack in adopting measures to sterilize, without consent, poor, mentally disabled, and so-called "undesirable" citizens in the name of improving humanity's breeding stock.
We're generally horrified by that idea now – especially following the full application of eugenics practices by the Nazis – but in the early 20th century, the idea not only had mainstream support, including the endorsement of the U.S. Supreme Court, but was on the cutting edge of progressive ideas for maintaining public health and welfare. Hitler said U.S. eugenics and immigration laws gave him ideas for how to cleanse Germany.
The second state to jump on the eugenics bandwagon
was Washington, inspired by a proposed measure in Oregon that was partly the result of a gay-sex scandal in Portland. In 1909, Washington's law adopted similar language to allow forced sterilization of the "feeble minded, insane, epileptic, habitual criminal, degenerates, and sexual perverts."
How many of these were sterilized? In Washington, close to 700 people. Washington's law was overturned by the state Supreme Court in 1942; Oregon's was on the books until the 1980s. An estimated 2,600 were sterilized there.
As you can imagine
, these laws were interpreted widely. In the South, they were most often applied against black women. Everywhere, they were used against unwed mothers (often sterilized under the guise of other medical procedures, such as appendectomies), gay men, the handicapped, the mentally ill, juvenile delinquents, and welfare mothers. They provided an authorized outlet for race, class, and anti-gay prejudices.
In recent years, rights groups for the disabled, historians, and other activists have pushed for states to apologize for eugenics laws. A number have, including Virginia, North Carolina, California, and Oregon. I can find no evidence that Washington state has issued an apology, but I think it should.
This may be partly because Washington's law was struck down fairly early, in the 1940s, so few of the victims are likely alive, unlike states where sterilization continued into the 1960s and '70s. Few have come forward to speak. But I think that given Washington's commitment to being a center of biotechnology – a field also fraught with ethical dilemmas and moral considerations – it is long past time to examine what we've done, why we did it, and what that might teach us about what lies ahead. It's not as if we learned our lesson in 1942. As I wrote in Seattle Weekly
Washington and Oregon were not alone in embracing eugenics. Many of our neighbors did, too, including British Columbia, Alberta, Idaho, and California. Nor is this the only instance of our state's advocacy of cruelty in the name of science. It was a Washington doctor who popularized treating the mentally ill with ice-pick lobotomies (without an anesthetic, by the way). It was a University of Washington scientist who, from 1963-1973, conducted federally funded sterilization experiments on Northwest prison-inmate "volunteers" by exposing their testicles to radiation.
We're still wrestling with the ethics involved in human cloning, test-tube breeding, abortion, stem-cell research, contraception, assisted suicide, and the surgical modification of the handicapped, such as the controversial so-called "pillow angel" surgery performed at Children's Hospital in Seattle. A sampling of the ethical debate of the latter case can be found here
, and here
There are many unsettled issues, and it's also fair to say that even scientific consensus is open to challenge. Again, eugenics, now seen as at best crackpot and at worst monstrous and genocidal, was once not only mainstream but viewed as liberally enlightened.
I think officially acknowledging the error of our ways could lead to a reinvigorated debate about what lies ahead for a state so committed to helping the world--and profiting from it – through scientific means.