Written by Nia
Content Warning: This article contains talk about rape, eugenics, and forced sterilizations.
The History of Forced Sterilization Laws in Washington
The first forced sterilization law in Washington State was enacted in 1909. This law allowed forced sterilization of serial felons and those guilty of raping or abusing a female under the age of ten. With this law, Washington became the second state following Indiana to pass forced sterilization laws in the United States. In 1912 Peter Feilen, convicted of rape, appealed his punishment of forced sterilization, but the Washington Supreme court ruled against him. The court didn’t consider forced sterilization a cruel or unusual form of punishment, which they only thought of in terms of physical pain; to them, the surgical procedure of a vasectomy “was a very simple one” (1). Of course, forced sterilization does not prevent convicted people from reoffending. The fact that Feilen was also sentenced to life in prison indicates the primary intent of sterilization was punishment. It took away a right that many felt was intrinsic to life itself. It is also imperative to remember that U.S. prison populations historically and in the present day are disproportionately made up of poor people and people of color. This means that racial and class biases played a role in who lost their right and ability to procreate at their will.
Not many forced sterilizations under the first law were performed, but in 1921 a second law was passed that greatly increased the number of people sterilized per year. The official count of forced sterilizations under the second law is 685, but that is likely an underestimate. In that time, several new sterilization laws had emerged in the U.S. based on Harry Laughlin’s “model” eugenical sterilization law, which served as a template for states to pass laws to prevent the procreation of the “unfit” (2). The 1921 Washington law was similarly meant to prevent “the procreation of feeble minded, insane, epileptic, habitual criminals, moral degenerates and sexual perverts, who may be inmates of institutions maintained by the State” (3). Rather than being a punitive measure, forced sterilization in these cases was to prevent the inheritance of future offspring who “would probably become a social menace or wards of the state” due to the inheritance of traits deemed to be inferior (3). Those who were deemed developmentally delayed, promiscuous, or burdens on the state were targeted. This included young people at state-run reform schools and the physically disabled. Poor people, and Black, Indigenous, and other people of color were sterilized more frequently, and the majority of sterilizations occurred to women. In 1942 the Washington Supreme Court decided the law was unconstitutional because it violated the 14th amendment right to due process, but it recognized the power of the state to sterilize inmates, as decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in Buck v Bell. The 1921 law was repealed five years later, but the 1909 law is still in place today (though unenforceable).
Prevalence of Eugenics ideologies today
These forced sterilization laws have roots in eugenics ideologies. Eugenics is a pseudoscience that argues unfavorable traits in humans can be eradicated through selective breeding. Eugenics includes both “positive eugenics” (encouraging people with desirable traits to reproduce) and “negative eugenics” (preventing people with undesirable traits from reproducing). Forced sterilization was a key part of eugenics, but it also included practices like “fitter family” contests and immigration legislation like the Johnson-Reed act of 1924. (2)
While forced sterilizations may seem like a thing of the distant past, they continued throughout the 20th century and are still occurring today. In 1970, concerned about an expanding welfare state, illegitimacy rates, and environmental impacts of population growth, the federal government passed the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act (also known as Title X). Among other things, it subsidized sterilizations for patients who received care through Medicaid and the Indian Health Service. In the years that followed, thousands of Black, Latina, and Indigenous women were targeted for coerced sterilizations (4). More recent news reports have unearthed allegations of coerced hysterectomies of migrant women in U.S. immigration detention centers (5). Nowadays, eugenics ideologies can also be found in niche environmental movements whose main focus is on population control as a means to curb overconsumption of our planet’s limited resources (6). When engaging with ideas of population control, it’s important to ask: what are the motivations, who would make these decisions, who will be impacted by them, and how? It is imperative that when searching for climate solutions, a well-rounded approach that supports all inhabitants of this Earth is taken. The reproductive rights of disabled people, women, and especially those who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color in particular, must be at the forefront. Without recognition, reflection, and action, history is bound to repeat itself.
Thank you so much to all the amazing writers and researchers who have dedicated their time to share this topic. I appreciate all that you have done and am hoping that this article makes your work even more accessible. Thank you again!