The State of Virginia has passed legislation that would offer financial compensation to victims of the state’s eugenic sterilization program, which forcibly sterilized over 8,000 Virginians deemed “unfit” to reproduce from the 1920s through 1970s. Reports indicate that only 11 surviving victims have been identified, and will each receive a $25,000 compensation. This makes Virginia the second state to address the crimes of forced sterilization through compensation. In 2012, North Carolina announced similar plans to compensate surviving victims of forced sterilization. Payments began in 2014, though the process has been riddled with red tape and loopholes that some say are preventing sterilization victims from receiving their proper compensation.
Virginia passed its Eugenic Sterilization Act in 1924, alongside a “Racial Integrity Act” which made it “unlawful for any white person in [Virginia] to marry any [person] save a white person.” Battles over the legality of the state’s sterilization law culminated in 1927, when the Supreme Court ruled eugenic sterilization constitutional in the infamous ruling in the case Buck v. Bell. Eugenics sterilization laws proliferated after the ruling. Eventually over 30 states adopted compulsory sterilization bills motivated by eugenics.
Though the eugenics movement fell out of popular favor with the onset of World War II, Virginia’s sterilization act remained on the books until 1979. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, the law was increasingly used to target Black women within the welfare system.
Newsweek’s recent article “How to Defuse the Population Bomb” confronts an old subject with a frustratingly uncritical eye. The piece details the much-discussed problem of overpopulation with a focus on its environmental and economic implications. It paints a troubling picture of a poor, dirty, and overcrowded “Africa” (referred to en masse as often as by specific countries). The answer to avoiding an even more overburdened, resource-starved earth? Massively increase birth control accessibility and family planning education in the Global South. While informed, consensual access to birth control ought to be a worldwide right, the uncritical, alarmist discourse around population control deployed here fails to incorporate a critical historical lens.
The article makes a brief foray into the history of birth control via Western intervention in the non-white world, linked to the slave trade and the era of formal colonization in the African continent. But the historical analysis stops there, before reaching the 20th century and the insidious modern history of continued Western intervention into family planning in the developing world—a history linked to eugenics and population control.
The American eugenics movement of the early 20th century was largely concerned with domestic issues of “race suicide”—the perceived demographic shift away from a white Anglo-American majority due to immigration and variable reproductive rates between racial groups. But this domestic demographic crisis was clearly linked to a parallel crisis happening at a global scale. Imperial rhetoric employed in works like Lothrop Stoddard’s hugely influential The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy was amplified by the notion that population growth in the non-white world would outstrip that of the “civilized nations.” International policymaking and philanthropy, coupled with alliances between eugenicists, neo-Malthusians, and other population control camps, would follow. The 1925 Sixth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference in New York brought together a critical mass of parties interested in global population control. Foundational international birth control organizations such as International Planned Parenthood Federation and Pathfinder International were borne out of the intersections of the eugenics, birth control, and population control movements and the wallets of eugenically minded philanthropists like Clarence Gamble. For decades, Gamble’s Pathfinder International oversaw the distribution of untested and unsafe birth control methods throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, while funding staffing at Puerto Rico’s Family Planning Association, which advocated for sterilization as an alternative to contraception. Coupled with the implementation of Harry H. Laughlin’s “model eugenic sterilization law” in 1936, one-third of Puerto Rican women would be sterilized by 1968. Rushed, dangerous, and ill-informed contraception initiatives, such as the one undertaken in India in the 1970, were consistently pushed and funded by American interests.
All in the name of “population control” and cloaked in arguments of economic development, environmental sustainability, women’s rights…
Even today, the distribution of a little-known and under-tested drug called Quinacrine, has been cited as the “newest tool in a decades-long movement of coercive sterilization.” As reported by the Center for New Community, a racial justice research institution, the push for distribution of Quinacrine in the developing world is linked to contemporary far-right anti-immigrant organization and key players in the history of eugenics and population control.
The point is not a simplistic assertion that calls for population control are akin to calls for eugenics or neo-eugenics. Rather, we urge contemporary conversations about population control to consider critically the history of how eugenics operated within the population control movement, soiling a potentially beneficial project with racism, abuse, and violence. Alarmist calls for population control are more likely to repeat the mistakes of the past than are critical, historically nuanced conversations. Even more, when it comes to conversations about very real problems of resource depletion and poverty, we have to wonder why difficult questions of resource re-distribution and overconsumption tend to be passed over for the easy tropes of “too many Africans.” The implications of the privileging of Western luxury over “third world” bodies are hard to ignore.
Hansen, Randall and King, Desmond. “Eugenics and World Population Control.” In Sterilized by the State: Eugenics, Race, and the Population Scare in Twentieth-Century North America.
Despite the power and popularity of American eugenics in the early 20th century, the movement also faced its share of critics: from the Catholic Church to Boasian anthropologists, some formally trained geneticists, and standout politicians like Emanuel Celler. (Unfortunately, resistance from communities targeted by eugenicists, such as new immigrants and people with disabilities, is more difficult to trace.) Though their criticisms were largely unheeded in the 1910s and 1920s, their contributions to a slowly growing body of political, academic, and scientific disregard for eugenics thought would help spell the end of popular American eugenics by the end of World War II.
Now, we’ve come across a fascinating refutation of eugenics from a 1915 edition of The Day Book, a Chicago daily newspaper. In it, writer R.F. Paine writes a scathing, radically anti-corporate critique of eugenics. Stirred by the 1914 slaughter of Standard Oil strikers by Colorado militiamen, Paine suggests that the perpetrators of corporate greed and exploitation make up the true “defective” class.
It’s a welcome rebuttal to the claims of eugenicists and the philanthropists who funded them. How would such an article have been received in 1915?
WHERE TO BEGIN.The millions of Mrs. Harriman, relict of the great railroad “promoter,” assisted by other millions of Rockefeller and Carnegie, are to be devoted to sterilization of several hundred thousands of American “defectives” annually, as a matter of eugenics.
It is true that we don’t yet know all that the millions of our plutocracy can do to the common folks. We see that our moneyed plutocrats can own the governments of whole states, override constitutions, maintain private armies to shoot down men, women and children and railroad innocent men to life imprisonment for murder, or lesser crimes. And if we submit to such things, we ought not to be surprised if they undertake to sterilize all those who are obnoxious to them.
Of course, the proposition demands much on who are the declared “defective.”
The old Spartans, with war always in view, used to destroy, at birth, boys born with decided physical weakness. Some of our present day eugenists go farther and damn children before their birth because of parents criminally inclined. Then we have eugenic “defectives” in the insane and incurably diseased…
But isn’t there another sort of “defective,” who is quite as dangerous as any but whom discussion generally overlooks, especially discussion by senile, long-hailed pathologists, and long-eared college professors involved in the Harriman-Rockefeller scheme to sterilize?
A boy is born to millions. He either doesn’t work, isn’t useful, doesn’t contribute to human happiness, is altogether a parasite, or else he works to add to his millions, with the brutal, insane greed for more and more that caused the accumulation of the inherited millions. Why isn’t isn’t such the most dangerous “defective” of all? Why isn’t the prevention of more such progeny the first duty of eugenics? Such “defectives” directly attack the rights, liberties, happiness, lives of millions.
Talk about inheriting criminal tendencies! If there a ranker case of such than the inheritance of Standard Oil criminality as evidenced in the slaughter of mothers and their babies at Ludlow?
Sterilization of hundreds of thousands of the masses, by the Harrimans and Rockefellers? Let’s first try out the “defectives” of the sons of Harriman and Rockefeller!
“If America is to escape the doom of nations generally, it must breed good Americans.”
–Harry H. Laughlin (1914), Eugenics Record Office superintendent,”expert” advisor on the
1924 Immigration Restriction Act and architect of the widely adopted “model eugenic sterilization law.”
“I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.”
–John Tanton (December, 1993), founder, Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR)
A 2013 report from the Center for New Communitytraces the disturbingly direct ties between hardline eugenicists of the pre-WWII era and contemporary anti-immigrant organizations and sterilization/”population control” campaigns.
As the report explains, in 1937 ERO superintendent Harry H. Laughlin helped Wickliffe Draper found the Pioneer Fund, dedicated to “fund the scientific study of heredity and human differences.” Today, the Fund is alive and well, having funded the bulk of the research cited in Murray and Herrnstein’s infamous book The Bell Curve(1994), and more recently pouring money into John Tanton’s Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the fierce anti-immigration group behind Arizona SB 1070, a bill authorizing police to demand papers proving immigration status from anyone they suspect of being in the country unlawfully. Meanwhile, Tanton has been behind the promotion and proliferation of Quinacrine, a “permanent birth control” method that advocates have pushed into the developing world, administering the drug to often under-informed or misled women in the name of “population control”.
Last year one of the most prolific forces in American compulsory sterilization passed a law paying out compensation to those still living with the tragic legacy of the practice. North Carolina sterilized some 7,000 people between 1929 and 1976, with an estimated 3,000 individuals still alive and able to claim $20,000 in reparations offered by the legislation.
Debra Blackmon (left) was sterilized by court order in 1972, at age 14. With help from her niece, Latoya Adams (right), she’s fighting to be included in the state’s compensation program. Eric Mennel/WUNC
This week NPR is reporting that hundreds of people who were forced to undergo the procedure in the state may not ever be compensated because of a technicality. According to the law the sterilization had to have been officially approved by the state’s Eugenics Board. However, many individuals were targeted at the local level by judges or social workers who cited state law but didn’t get official approval for their decisions.
A spokesman for the state when asked if NC is responsible for these individuals responded, “That’s kind of hard to say. Again, it’s just an unfortunate part of our history. It’s just something that was done. So it’s kind of hard to say that the state would be responsible when it was just kind of an accepted practice.”
To say that the state isn’t responsible for creating a legal framework in which individuals in power were able to sterilize those they saw as “unfit” is deeply misguided. This kind of obfuscation is doubly offensive because of the way in which eugenic sterilizations were often done without the knowledge of the victim, and thus eliminated the ability to appeal the decision to the Eugenics Board. If NC and its elected officials were truly committed to justice they would take full responsibility and make sure no victim of compulsory sterilization was manipulated out of their deserved compensation by the very bureaucracy that once so callously abused them.