Kimberly Jeffrey was sedated and strapped to a surgical table when the doctor performing her cesarean section asked if she wanted a tubal ligation—a procedure she had twice rejected at earlier checkups during her time in prison. She refused again. But other prisoners had a different outcome. Between 2006 and 2010, at least 148 female inmates in California state prisons were sterilized in violation of state regulations, according to a report by the Center for Investigative Journalism. While the women gave consent, they did so in an environment that is inherently coercive. “You do what you’re told to do to get out,” one inmate testified. “If the doctor tells you you should do this, you’re automatically inclined to feel like you should do it.”
These revelations from California serve as a painful reminder that not so long ago, literally stripping men and women of a most basic human right—the freedom to have a child—was seen as a legitimate and cost-effective means for addressing social ills. While many associate eugenics with the racial ideology of Nazi Germany, the practice of government-mandated sterilization that this movement inspired has a history in Western Europe as well as the United States.
At the turn of the 20th century, scientists and reformers in the United States were at the vanguard of the eugenics movement, which held that controlling heredity was the way to eradicate crime and poverty. Reputable philanthropies, like the Carnegie Institution and the Rockefeller Foun-dation, poured millions of dollars into eugenics research in the United States and Germany. The American Eugenics Society led the legislative charge, lobbying for restrictions on reproduction, marriage and immigration to purify the gene pool and lessen the welfare burden of “defective” individuals. Between 1907 and 1981, 63,000 Americans deemed insane, feeble-minded, criminally inclined or otherwise “unfit” were sterilized at the hands of state eugenics boards. Most of the victims were poor women, and a disproportionate number were people of color.
The constitutionality of the practice was upheld in Buck v. Bell (1927), the Supreme Court case in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. penned the infamous words, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” a chilling sentiment that found widespread public support.
Some of the strongest opposition to sterilization came from within the Catholic Church, which couched its critique in both theological and scientific terms. In response to the Buck decision, the editors of America wrote, “Fundamentally, our objection is based on the fact that every man, even a lunatic, is an image of God, not a mere animal, that he is a human being, and not a mere social factor” (5/14/1927). Wilfrid Parsons, S.J., also in America (2/10/1934), described sterilization as “criminal folly” and the faulty biology used to justify the practice as “probably the most gigantic and cruel hoax that has ever been foisted on a credulous and ignorant people.”
In the encyclical “Casti Connubii” (1930), Pope Pius XI wrote that where no crime has occurred, the state “can never directly harm or tamper with the integrity of the body, either for reasons of eugenics or for any other reason.” Unfortunately, the prophetic voices of the church and others were unable to slow the momentum of the sterilization movement. Even after Nazis quoted Justice Holmes at the Nuremberg trials to defend their wartime atrocities, forced sterilizations continued in the United States for over three decades.
In recent years, states have started to come to terms with this dark chapter of their past. At least seven have offered formal apologies for their eugenics programs. In July 2013 North Carolina became the first state to provide monetary restitution, allocating $10 million for an estimated 150 to 200 surviving victims. A similar measure was proposed this February in Virginia, but it failed to advance despite support from groups as varied as the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and the Virginia Catholic Conference, which noted, “While no amount of money will ever repair the harm done or adequately compensate the victims for their loss, the Commonwealth finally should provide some restitution as a matter of justice.”
State governments should follow North Carolina’s lead by meeting with victims and finding ways to heal the wounds of this grave crime committed against their own citizens. As a nation, we have a responsibility to grapple with the shameful legacy of government-mandated sterilization, as well as the impulse for progress at the expense of individual human dignity that lay behind the program. At a time when advances in embryonic screening and genetic engineering promise to alleviate much human suffering—and raise concerns about the creation of “designer babies”—the church must continue bearing witness to the truth that while frail and imperfect, we humans are nevertheless made in the image of God.