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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.

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