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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.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Nevertheless, the law has been renewed each year by Congress, and it flatly prohibits funding of any organization that either (1) "supports" or (2) "participates in the management of" a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.
Beginning in the early 1900s, as eugenic reformers in the United States targeted poor, white immigrants for involuntary sterilization, physicians turned away many other women whose reproduction was deemed socially desirable.
Committee Against Torture has expressed concern at reports of women undergoing involuntary sterilization (288) and has recommended that states parties investigate such claims, (289) it has not directly addressed the issue of involuntary IUDs.
The surgical solution: A history of involuntary sterilization in the United States.
had the first involuntary sterilization law in the world in 1907.
History has shown us that children with disabilities have been victims of involuntary sterilization, institutionalization, and widespread abuse, neglect, and death.
1985 Congress votes to prohibit foreign aid to any organization that the administration determines is involved in "coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization." In 2002, the Bush administration will de-fund the United Nations Population Fund for merely having a presence in China; Bush also tells African governments to ban UNFPA-funded groups from distributing US-supplied contraceptives.
(47) Section 601(a) of the IIRIRA specifically provides victims of coercive population control policies a legal basis for asylum by expanding the definition of "refugee" to include: [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.
Nobel laureate William Shockley encouraged involuntary sterilization measures, based on the observation that the least-capable persons in the community were producing the largest numbers of offspring.
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.
Both genders were subject to involuntary sterilization, while women were also more likely to submit to voluntary sterilization.