Editor's note: This is the third story in a three-part series about the American eugenics movement after World War II. The series focuses on the wealthy benefactors and various promoters of eugenics, including ministers, bankers, journalists and politicians (part 1); the advertising and public relations machine behind the movement (part 2); and the racial aspects of eugenics (part 3, below).
When Fannie Lou Hamer tried to organize black voters in her home state of Mississippi, she was savagely beaten. As she campaigned for civil rights, Hamer became one of the first to acknowledge another hidden abuse—forcible sterilization of minorities.
"Six out of every ten Negro women were taken to the Sunflower City Hospital to be sterilized for no reason at all," Hamer said in a 1965 speech at the nation's Capitol, according to a Washington Post article. "Often the women were not told that they had been sterilized until they were released from the hospital."
Hamer's accusation received attention but also raised questions. Some wondered if her numbers were accurate. They were, according to a 1965 letter from the National Council of Churches. A young law student had been sent to investigate, and "He concluded, after diligent research, that the charges were indeed true but that all those involved were too frightened to make an affidavit to that effect."
The letter was one of many collected by Dr. Julius Paul, a researcher at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Americans had supposedly rejected eugenics after World War II and the Nazi horrors, but Paul saw an opposite trend. At the very moment when compulsory sterilization in most states was fading to a fraction of levels of prewar eugenics programs, many of the same economic, racial and moral justifications of the practice had returned. "The superficially moralistic overtones of these proposals should not blind us to the similarity of the current attacks on the recipients of welfare assistance and the poor ... to the earlier attacks on the masses of foreign immigrants coming to America," Paul wrote.
In many cases race was at the center of the new debate over sterilization. In 1964, Mississippi lawmakers argued whether the state should arrest parents of illegitimate children and offer them a choice of prison or sterilization. "When the cutting starts, they'll head for Chicago," state Rep. Stone Barefield said, referring to sterilization and black people.
As lawmakers began debating the issue, Mississippi newspapers described the mood in the state Capitol as "boisterous." But the jokes didn't go over well with Mrs. Gordon White, who admonished her colleagues. "This is no laughing matter. We have a welfare problem that is hurting our state. We are trying to let people know that we do not approve and we are not going to continue to pay for it. I very much favor this bill," according to the pamphlet "Genocide in Mississippi," issued by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Another supporter of the legislation taught Sunday school at his Baptist Church. All but one of the original bill sponsors was in his 20s or 30s, and Newsweek quoted one saying the law was "morally sound." There was clearly broad support for the involuntary sterilization law, and it wasn't coming from the old guard of the eugenics movement who had formed their beliefs before World War II.
The South wasn't the only region with a renewed interest in involuntary sterilization. In Pasadena, Calif., in 1963, a man was granted probation in a child support case after "consenting" to a vasectomy. In Santa Barbara County in 1965, two women were given reduced sentences and probation after they submitted to sterilization. In 1966, a single mother with no prior criminal record or history of misusing welfare funds was convicted of a misdemeanor for being in a house where marijuana was being used. Municipal Court Judge Frank Kearney offered a suspended sentence and probation—if Mrs. Nancy Hernandez agreed to be sterilized. Kearney said that Hernandez "should not have more children because of her propensity to live an immoral life," and added that his probation deal was "nothing novel—legally, medically, or sociologically." Hernandez initially agreed to the operation, then reconsidered, and the American Civil Liberties Union supported her. A Superior Court judge struck down Kearney's sterilization order.
In many cases, people who were involuntarily sterilized had little or no idea what was happening to them. "They asked me if I wanted my appendix out. I was so dumb then. I said sure. When I woke up I saw this big scar across my stomach," said Carolyn Wade, a young white woman who was ordered sterilized in 1966, at age 17, by Judge William Gary of Ohio. Gary had ordered sterilizations in previous cases, and he made no apologies in a 1962 letter to Julius Paul. "... We would try to get consent in each case, but if consent were not given, it would be proper to proceed with the order, provided due service had been given to the next of kin," Gary wrote.
During the 1960s and '70s, the media and government focused on poverty among black Americans. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the U.S. assistant secretary of labor, wanted to stop a centuries-long cycle of discrimination and help black Americans prosper. But parts of his 1965 report weren't that different from the sentiments voiced by Mississippi lawmakers the year before: Black people were having too many children. "Negro families in the cities are more frequently headed by a woman than those in the country. Negro women not only have more children, but have them earlier ... The Negro fertility rate overall is now 1.4 times the white," Moynihan wrote in The Negro Family: The Case For National Action.
The report was a key part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, and it stated that "The evidence—not final, but powerfully persuasive—is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling. A middle-class group has managed to save itself, but for vast numbers of the unskilled, poorly educated city working class, the fabric of conventional social relationships has all but disintegrated. So long as this situation persists, the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself."
And in a little-noticed point, one of the most important bureaucrats in the War on Poverty had a long history of supporting eugenics. Dr. Ellen Winston, whom John F. Kennedy appointed as the first U.S. Commissioner of Welfare in 1963, stayed in that position until 1967. Winston, a North Carolina native, had served on that state's eugenics board for almost 20 years before moving to Washington. In North Carolina she approved measures to track both black and white children for future sterilization, as well as a radical expansion of the N.C. eugenics program in 1961, as noted by the secretary:
"I now propose to have as my objective ... to work to promote earlier use of the program; that is, after the first rather than third or fourth child. ... I plan a tickler (sic) file on all persons whose names reach me regardless of age in order that they may be picked up as they reach child bearing age ... I also plan to look carefully at people who live in dreadful living conditions (substandard housing, crowded families, etc., where poor standard of conduct may flourish) to determine if sterilization of the family members would help to prevent the situation from worsening."
By the mid-1960s the stage had been set. Both liberals and conservatives were questioning minority birth rates. Add to that the growing discussion about world population growth, and the result was that people who coerced or forced minorities into sterilization operations could easily justify their actions.
Greed among doctors may have been a factor, too, according to H. Curtis Wood, a Philadelphia OB/GYN and longtime president of the Human Betterment Association. As sterilizations surged in the 1960s, he noted that "the urologists have finally gotten on the bandwagon, and I think primarily, not because they got concerned about population problems but because there's so much easy money in it. They can concentrate and have Saturday mornings, let's say, be vasectomy day, and they can do 10 in a morning with no problem at all and charge $150 and make $1,500 in a morning," according to an interview done by William van Essendelft.
Operations and experiments took place even in states where there were no laws allowing eugenic sterilization. A 1963 letter from a director at Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital in New York noted that, "greatly to our surprise, there have been at least 85 sterilizations reported for this disease, and 131 consultations for the possibility of sterilization." A 1960 letter from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City said that "extensive toxicity studies on male prisoners elsewhere have established the safety and reliability" of a compound designed to cause male infertility, and sought new men for further tests.