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A medical procedure where the reproductive organs are removed or rendered ineffective.

Legally mandated sterilization of criminals, or other members of society deemed "socially undesirable," has for some time been considered a stain on the history of U.S. law. The practice, also known as eugenics, originated early in the twentieth century. In 1914, a Model Eugenical Sterilization Law was published by Harry Laughlin at the Eugenics Records Office. Laughlin proposed the sterilization of "socially inadequate" persons, which translated as anyone "maintained wholly or in part by public expense." This would include the "feebleminded, insane, blind, deaf, orphans, and the homeless." At the time the model law was published, 12 states had enacted sterilization laws. Such laws were seen to benefit society since they presumably reduced the burden on taxpayers of maintaining state-run facilities. Eventually, these laws were challenged in court.

In Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927), oliver wendell holmes jr. wrote the infamous opinion that upheld the constitutionality of a Virginia sterilization law, fueling subsequent legislative efforts to enact additional sterilization laws. By 1930, 30 states and Puerto Rico had passed laws mandating sterilization for many criminal or moral offenses. Nearly all of the states with such laws imposed mandatory sterilization of mentally defective citizens. Nineteen states required sterilization for parents of children likely to experience various disorders. Six states encouraged sterilization for individuals whose children might be "socially inadequate."

Finally, the Supreme Court struck down an Oklahoma law mandating involuntary sterilization for repeat criminals in Skinner v. Oklahoma, 316 U.S. 535, 62 S. Ct. 1110, 86 L. Ed. 1655 (1942). Justice william o. douglas's opinion broadly defined the right to privacy to include the right to procreate, and concluded that the government's power to sterilize interfered with an individual's basic liberties.

By mid-century, legal attitudes had changed, and many state sterilization laws were held to be unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment prohibiting Cruel and Unusual Punishment.

Further readings

Carlson, Elof Axel. 2001. The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea. Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.

Kevles, Daniel J. 1985. In the Name of Eugenics. New York: Knopf.

Smith, J. David, and K. Ray Nelson. 1999. The Sterilization of Carrie Buck. Far Hills, N.J.: New Horizon Press.

References in periodicals archive ?
The statement noted that women bear the brunt of involuntary sterilization, often in connection with coercive population policies.
Chen, a human rights lawyer, had exposed and protested coerced abortions, involuntary sterilizations and other abuses in China.
The surgical solution: A history of involuntary sterilization in the United States.
had the first involuntary sterilization law in the world in 1907.
A] person who has been forced to abort a pregnancy or to undergo involuntary sterilization, or who has been persecuted for failure or refusal to undergo such a procedure or for other resistance to a coercive population control program, shall be deemed to have been persecuted on account of political opinion, and a person who has a well founded fear that he or she will be forced to undergo such a procedure or subject to persecution for such failure, refusal, or resistance shall be deemed to have a well founded fear of persecution on account of political opinion.
Isolation, institutionalization and involuntary sterilization have abated somewhat in the past few years, but many still question the abilities of those with learning disabilities who are now allowed to have their own families.
The only other Canadian province to pass legislation authorizing involuntary sterilization was British Columbia.
I suspect that the descendents of eugenic activists do not like being reminded of their ancestors' terrible eugenic deeds, moral degradation and depredations, and the horrible things they inflicted upon the weak and powerless--like involuntary sterilization.
As examples he cites laws enacted in twenty-one states in the first decades of the twentieth century "calling for the involuntary sterilization of criminal elements, alcoholics, and the retarded.
THE SHAMEFUL US HISTORY OF involuntary sterilization, forced relocation and environmental abuse suffered by Native Americans gave rise to the triumphs of Native American activists like Katsi Cook, a Mohawk woman in Akwesasne along the St.
Many became pillars of their communities, with one, Bethenia Owens Adair, becoming so respectable she was able to successfully promote legislation for the involuntary sterilization of the disabled.
Anyone the state considered socially undesirable appeared subject to involuntary sterilization, including: individuals with hereditary deafness or blindness, those considered to have mental illness or developmental disabilities, individuals with epilepsy, criminals, prostitutes, or the poor (Larson, 2002; Lombardo, 2003).