Cut Off! Understanding the Impact of Eugenics on American Reproductive Policies
Updated: Mar 31
When Lena Edwards was arrested in 1912 for stealing $2 to purchase shoes and food, she was swiftly apprehended and marched before the New York juvenile courts. Upon finding her mother to be unwed and unemployed, Edwards was committed to a home for delinquent girls — not for stealing — but to protect her from her mother’s “immoral” behavior and keep her from following her mother’s example. Her classification and confinement as a “risk” to public morality initiated a state-sanctioned process of “fixing” her, that could include reproductive sterilization, or a tubal ligation.
The New York Medical Journal reported in 1913 that increased birth rates, particularly among unmarried women, fostered increased prostitution, poverty, crime and disease and became a source of continual recruitment of the undesirable class by potentially worthy citizens. Between 1907 and 2015, thousands of marginalized (poor, undereducated, and immigrant) Americans found themselves classified feebleminded by U.S. health and social services agencies, and targets of an aggressive campaign to prevent births among their populations.
And while reformers, like Margaret Sanger, and members of the Birth Control League (early Planned Parenthood) connected eugenics — defined as the science of better breeding — to a larger movement to regulate the poor and stop the rise in crime and illegitimacy, the majority of Blacks who fell victim to state-sanctioned sterilizations, were ill-informed about the procedure, never provided consent, or agreed to it under duress.
In 2011, North Carolina became the first U.S. state to extend an apology on behalf of the government. It’s Eugenics Task Force Listening Session, held in Raleigh, allowed testimony from the more than 7,600 men, women and children as young as 10 who were sterilized under North Carolina's eugenics laws between 1924 and 1979.
Testimonies included detailed accounts of social workers coercing families to have their children sterilized under threat of losing their land, public assistance, or custody of the children. Neighbors, rivals, and any law abiding citizen had a right and a duty to report "deviant" behavior to authorities, though most often sterilizations resulted from reports of sexual promiscuity or poverty.
Lela Dunston, 72, was only 13 when she gave birth to a son in the Chapel Hill area of North Carolina. She said she was unaware why county officials had visited her mother within a year of her son's birth, or the duress under which her mother was forced to commit her to a home for wayward girls. Though Dunston had committed no crime, she was carted off and held for years at the institution. Under North Carolina statute, Dunston was eligible to leave the home only after being surgically sterilized.
"They never asked me anything, but later presented documents that I supposedly signed giving them permission to operate on me. It was not my signature. I never signed anything," Dunston said. She later ran away from the facility and worked as many as three jobs simultaneously to care for herself. When reunited with her son years later, she found he had suffered a similar fate, and was never able to have children.
"The government claims to have done the sterilization procedure on kids as young as eight or nine, but I believe that they did it on my son before that. If being poor or promiscuous is in the genes, the state would feel justified in doing to the kids the same as what they did to the mothers," Dunston said.
North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue appointed the task force to consider compensating victims and was on hand for the testimonies. Perdue said the testimonies were necessary in order to put faces and experiences with the raw data.
"This is a sad, hard day for North Carolina. We are in the greatest nation on the planet, and you hear these types of things and think, Third World, or someplace far removed. And it is difficult for me to hear because first, and foremost, I am a mother," Perdue said.
Some of the women, like sisters, Dottie and Flossie Bates, were mere girls when the procedures took place in 1934. Their niece, Karen Bates spoke on behalf the sisters, both now deceased, and said that hunger, and the inability of their father to feed them after his wife’s death, turned the sisters into beggars. Medical records indicated that the sisters had been given appendectomies. It was only after one of the sisters fell ill with an acute appendicitis in 1936, that it was realized something was amiss. Even then, the teenagers had no recourse.
“The law was the law. They labeled both of the girls vagrant and feebleminded, which was all that was needed during that time to have them sterilized. In fact, they were two grief-stricken little girls who were trying to cope with the loss of their mother and deal with an increasingly despondent father,” said Bates.
Still other women, like Naomi Shank and Margaret Cheek, were married when they were brought before North Carolina’s sterilization board. In 1948, Shank was 17 years old and married when she miscarried the couple’s first child. She said doctors told her husband to sign or make a mark on a form for her care, but nothing else. “My mother had seven children and all of them had children. My husband said doctors assured him that a normal D&C would be done and that we could try having children again in a few months. The doctors later admitted they had sterilized me instead,” Shank said. Australia Clay and Bertha Delores Mark spoke on behalf of their mother Margaret Cheek, now deceased, who was institutionalized at the infamous Cherry Hospital, following the birth of her fifth child. Suffering from what is now commonly referred to as post-partem depression, Cheek was tortured, sterilized, and used as a guinea pig for 12 years before being sent home just before Christmas of 1965, after the sterilization consent had been
signed. Clay said no one knew the extent of her mother’s trauma until reviewing her medical records through the Foundation. Clay went on to talk about how she believes her mother was sterilized against her knowledge because she loved her children and their father could not read so the signature that is on the medical forms could not possibly be that of their dad. Clay went on to state that her sister, Delores, taught her father how to write his signature later in life and that they believed his signature had been forged.
“She was 40 years old when they decided to just toss her back into our front yard. She had been given electric shock treatments and operated on without anesthesia. Twenty thousand dollars is not compensation enough; there should be some memorial erected to these people. They were not numbers in some medical research book; they were real people with lives and families, and they were destroyed by the state’s bogus medicine,” Clay said.
The North Carolina Industrial Commission certified 220 victims, and paid reparations of $50,000 to each.
Yet, even as North Carolina worked to repair its state sanctioned terror, other states, including California, came under scrutiny for continued reproductive abuses. In 2013, for instance, the Center for Investigative Reporting found that at least 148 female inmates in California received tubal ligations without their consent between 2006 and 2010. Just one year later, the Associated Press reported at least four instances of prosecutors in Nashville including birth control requirements in plea deals.
Other recent examples of court-required sterilization throughout the country include a 21-year-old West Virginia mother who had her tubes tied as part of her probation for marijuana possession (2009), and a man in Virginia who traded a vasectomy for a lighter child endangerment sentence (2014).
“We have to understand, as a nation, that we have equated barriers to social progress and national vigor with poverty and crime, so it seems natural to policymakers to cut off the supply of criminals and the poor, by keeping those people from having babies,” sociologist Patricia Mackey told Acumen. “This stereotyping allows for abuses in housing, education, employment, within law enforcement, and the criminal justice system. It is so ingrained at this stage, that even as we shake our heads against it, others among us believe forcing birth control and sterilizations onto the poor constitutes best practices for the nation.”
In the seven years since North Carolina legislators publicly apologized and began offering reparations for forcibly sterilizing nearly 7,000 residents, a few living victims have come forward to claim the $50,000 compensation packages. A similar reticence grips Virginia residents – who like the North Carolinians, have since 2015, not responded. Case work performed by the Christian Law Institute has found that thousands were sterilized under eugenic laws without their knowledge or consent, leaving them unaware of eligibility for compensation. New efforts, however, are underway to sue the states and force them to contact those impacted by their legislation.
“Looking at eugenic reparations from a legal perspective, it is critical that the Commonwealth of Virginia track down those who they forcibly sterilized because in many instances the operations were performed without the knowledge of the victim,” Christian Law Institute executive director and attorney Mark Bold told Acumen in an April 2017 interview. “It presents a Constitutional challenge because people have been unfairly disqualified from receiving reparations or restitution because they were told the operations they had were for an appendicitis or some other ailment.”
In 1907, Indiana passed the first eugenics-based compulsory sterilization law in the world. Thirty-three U.S. states would eventually follow their lead. And by 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Buck v. Bell, upheld the constitutionality of state-sanctioned, forced sterilization, on any person deemed socially unfit. States freely sterilized those who were poor, weak, infirmed, incarcerated, sexually promiscuous, ignorant (unable to score more than 70 on an intelligence test), and those who were likely to have children out of wedlock. Many were classified simply as feebleminded, imbeciles, or morons and considered under the law as “human waste” and “burdens on society.”
For Blacks, who were racially classified as “dysgenic” or inherently pathological, eugenic legislation targeted them through social services and health agencies for being impoverished, undereducated, and potentially criminal.
Elaine Riddick, one of the most outspoken survivors of North Carolina’s eugenic sterilization program became pregnant as the result of a rape when she was 13. The state did not need to know the details of her pregnancy, only that she was young, pregnant, poor, and unmarried.
“I was the victim of rape, child abuse and neglect and so I was constantly bullied at home and school. But I was not feebleminded or 'fast', what they called promiscuous. What I was going through was horrible and then the state of North Carolina came along and cut me open like a hog,” Riddick said during her 2011 testimony before the reparations board. Riddick’s son, Tony, was delivered by Caesarian and she was sterilized. Riddick told Acumen that reparations have been complicated by victims not having full disclosure of their medical records.
“In cases where people have been sterilized without their knowledge, I think states should be transparent in their reporting of the wrongdoing. The sterilization of people without their consent or knowledge is unconscionable and in some instances only the state has the information regarding what happened,” Riddick told Acumen. “It is my sincere belief that at a minimum, states should apologize to its victims. There is no amount of money that could compensate for such a life-altering, devastating, and permanent act as sterilization, but financial reparation, offers a small beacon of light that will allow states to demonstrate apathy, coupled with the request for mercy from its victims.”
In the 213-years following the Indiana legislation, an estimated 70,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized under state eugenic programs, according to data from the Eugenics Record Office. The ERO, a repository of genetic and biological research, was created under the Carnegie Institute of Washington as the Station for Experimental Evolution, in Cold Spring Harbor, New York.
Bold said he wants victims to come forward and have their say and be seen as real people that were harmed. Through a federal lawsuit against North Carolina, Virginia, and California, survivors like 88-year-old, Lewis Reynolds, who was sterilized at 13, can be compensated, despite not remembering the procedure. “If you exhibited any type of behavior that neighbors, teachers – anyone in authority – did not like, you could be labeled and sterilized,” Bold said.
In Reynolds’ case, throwing rocks with friends resulted in a minor head trauma that caused him to have several convulsions. Medical records document him being labeled epileptic, which under eugenic laws was considered a hereditary defect, and forced into the Lynchburg Colony (asylum) for four years, where he was sterilized. Reynolds went on to serve more than 30 years in the U.S. Marine Corps and trained FBI agents in firearm use, unaware of the sterilization until family members told him.
“It is unclear whether Reynolds experienced some other types of trauma while at Lynchburg that kept him from remembering the four years he spent there,” Bold told Acumen. “So, you can see that sometimes those with direct information about the victims worked for the state – they are the physicians that performed the procedures.”
Both the Reynolds and Riddick cases demonstrate the scientific fumble of eugenic logic – as both adults, went into adulthood as capable, law-abiding citizens despite being labeled socially deficient.
Literacy, language barriers, and racial intimidation have also played a critical role in sterilization without informed consent – particularly in California, where Black women and Latinos, who have been told they would lose custody of their children or state aid to care for them, if they did not agree to the procedures.
“The men and women are very cautious, they are afraid of the stigma attached to being labeled unfit, defective, feebleminded, or worthless. Some never wanted to come forward,” Bold told Acumen.
Dr. Shantella Sherman, Ph.D., is the author of In Search of Purity: Eugenics and Racial Uplift among New Negroes, 1915-1935 documenting the African American presence in the American eugenics movement; and Popular Eugenics in Television & Film (2020). Sherman is publisher of Acumen magazine and an award-winning journalist serving the U.S. and British communities.