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Commentary: U.S. and eugenics

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 12, 2011 - I have long intrigued students with the fact that our eugenics practices preceded those of Nazi Germany. I knew enough of the movement to understand that in the early 1900s many states were confident that acts, such as sterilization, were appropriate methods of "protecting" our society. The practice was fueled by the belief that undesirable traits such as poverty, promiscuity and alcoholism are inherited. The trouble is that such labels were loaded and intersected with negative beliefs about immigrants, African Americans and Native Americans.

For example, the early race scientists argued that races were distinct species and that people of African or Aboriginal descent were the least desirables. In addition, women were often blamed for being the victim of sexual assault rather than the perpetrator. Over the course of state-mandated sterilization, more than 60,000 individuals are known to be affected.

I was unaware that our own practices spanned into the late 1900s. For example, North Carolina, one of 31 states that had eugenics practices, has been in the news recently for its program, which spanned from 1929-1974. Of those who were sterilized under this program, 85 percent were female and 40 percent were people of color. The article highlights the story of a then 13-year-old African-American girl sterilized in 1967 after she was raped. She was deemed "promiscuous" and "feebleminded" by the states Eugenics Board, which was disbanded in 1977.

A recent New York Times article does a beautiful job of expanding what happened under the program. It tells one story of a 19-year-old White adolescent male who was unaware he was getting a vasectomy before leaving an institution for behavioral misconduct. Another example is an 18-year-old Latina woman, who after the birth of her first child was told her family would no longer receive government aid if she refused the procedure, one she was not told was permanent.

I wanted to understand this issue closer to home, and found that both Missouri and Illinois had no sterilization laws on the books.

But I did find a special collection at the University of Missouri. The first public lecture on Eugenics was given in 1912 by a professor of sociology, and the university joined the ranks of Harvard, Cornell, Brown and Columbia with a course offering. However, the course disappeared from the catalog after the Spring 1915 term. That brief stint is interesting to note, because one of the main figures of the American eugenics movement, Harry Loughlin, studied at what is now Truman State University.

Loughlin wrote a model law that was used to pass acts in a number of states and was also used in Germany. The application of the law led to the sterilization of more than 350,000 individuals during the 12 years of the Third Reich. In 1936, Loughlin was awarded an honorary degree for his prominent work on "race hygiene."

What I found most interesting as I dug deeper into the issue of sterilization was that the laws were written in a way that makes one think they would target rapists rather than the victims of rape. Perhaps the history of sterilization within the prison system is more quietly kept. From the broad application of the laws in places like North Carolina, it sounds as if people were taken advantage of, coerced and harshly judged.

While it is commendable that the state is looking into compensation, this method of systematic abuse of power is not easily translated into a cash settlement. In my opinion, the greatest act we can give the victims is to validate their experiences by being aware of and vigilant against such injustices.

Kira Hudson Banks, Ph.D., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.

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