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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 ?
Terminal sterilization, which is the complete destruction of all living microorganisms, sometimes can compromise the value of a biologic tissue.
It is the method of choice for any product that cannot withstand terminal sterilization, making it the go-to method for sterilizing vaccines, injectable products, infusions, protein-based products, and other delicate products.
When tissue bank B conducted a trace-back investigation and reviewed quality-control procedures, the implicated allografts had not received terminal sterilization with gamma irradiation.
Its innovative infection prevention solutions include capital, consumables and software for use in Low-Temperature Terminal Sterilization and High-Level Disinfection of reusable surgical instruments.
The company's proprietary processing methodology employs aseptic processing techniques in addition to terminal sterilization. MiMedx has supplied over 900,000 allografts to date for application in the wound care, burn, surgical, orthopedic, spine, sports medicine, ophthalmic and dental sectors of healthcare.
"Case turnaround has become a difficult process to manage in today's SPD/OR due to the long cycle times needed for almost all terminal sterilization products," he said.
* Aseptic filling, lyophilization, and terminal sterilization
Paul Stewart, Director of Business Development for the Pharma & Biotech department of Telstar Life Sciences, a company that provides steam and super-heated water autoclaves, ethylene oxide sterilizers for device sterilization, depyrogenation ovens and autoclaves for bio-decontamination, a sterilization laboratory, and more, agrees: "For terminal sterilization of pharmaceutical products and for bio-decontamination of materials, steam sterilization is still the most widely used; it's safe, low-cost, and easily validated." Stewart adds that although steam is very popular, for processes such as "surface decontamination of isolators and other enclosures, techniques based on the use of a solution of hydrogen peroxide delivered in the form of a vapor are the most popular."