In years between Galton coining the term eugenics and the end of World War II (1883-1945) eugenics through methods of birth control, forced abortion, and forced sterilization had spread all over the world. It was supported by H.G. Wells, Alexander Graham Bell, Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, and even blind and deaf socialist Hellen Keller. It was practiced, against poor, disabled, and women of color, in Canada, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and more.
By the time Adolf Hitler enacted the Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Disabled Offspring in 1933, the United States had already been forcibly sterilizing disabled people for a quarter of a century. It is easy as an American to see the evil in 1930s Germans for supporting such a measure, and much harder to recognize how normalized such unspeakable conduct was by our grandparents. Just as antisemitism was (and is) global, making escape exceedingly burdensome or impossible for European Jews, so too was eugenic ableism.
Not even the horrors of the Holocaust and the deaths of 12 million people in the quest for “racial purity” could get the ableist, racist US to reject eugenics. In the Deep South eugenics arguments had been used to segregate public spaces and they were used to resist desegregation. Indian Health Services sterilized untold numbers of Native women without their knowledge or consent. California forcibly sterilized over 20,000 disabled people, a third of the national total. That program didn’t officially end until the 1960s.
Today sterilization is a requirement in most states before a trans person’s legal records will be updated to reflect their true gender. Courts determine the merits of forcible sterilization of disabled adulta on a case by case basis, usually based on measures such as IQ. Disabled children starting with “Ashley X” have been subjected to “growth attenuation” or the intentional stunting of their growth combined with surgical removal of uterus, ovaries, and breast buds.
It’s important, crucially and vitally important, that we know where we come from, know the complicated roots of contraception and eugenics in our history. White feminists often don’t understand the distrust women of color may have for obstetricians, gynecologists, and social workers, all agents of forced sterilization. Abled feminists may not recognize the distance they create with disabled people when they use spectres of children like us to fight for abortion rights. Knowing this history can help all of us be honest and award of pitfalls.
Tomorrow we will get into the history of the birth control pill, including unethical human experiments in prison and on the island of Puerto Rico.