That Would Never Happen Here! Indiana’s Compulsory Sterilization Laws

August 04, 2020 9:00 AM | Sarah Halter (Administrator)

by Rhea Cain and Allison Linn

“Does public opinion indorse [sic] sterilization? The following report of a nationwide poll gives the answer.” 

The Indianapolis Star, Sun, May 23rd, 1937

It sounds a bit like a line from a dystopian novel by Margaret Atwell, but alas, it is from Indiana’s own not-so-distant past. Most folks may not realize that Indiana has a lot of “firsts” under its belt: The first city illuminated by electric light? Wabash, Indiana. The first gas pump?  Ft. Wayne, thanks to the forward thinking (what a name!) Sylavanus Freelove Bowser. The first compulsory sterilization laws used against the mentally ill? Indiana again.  

This law, enacted in Indiana with overwhelming support from the eugenics community in, was simply referred to as The Indiana Plan. Its justification can be traced back to theories of eugenics. Eugenics as a branch of science developed in the late 1800’s, which sprouted from Gregor Mendel’s cross breeding of plants in the mid-19th century. Mendel, is commonly referred to as the father of genetics, but it was his research and his theories on inherited traits that provided the foundation to the eugenics movement.

By the beginning of the twentieth century the adapted theories of Eugenics had established a firm following. The Eugenics Movement became popularized because it was believed that by installing some form of control over human reproduction, society would form a healthier and stronger human population in later generations. By the time Indiana passed its sterilization law, eugenics was a serious scientific study which held powerful advocates within the state and across the country. Indiana was a state known at this time for its reform in welfare and charity, therefore eugenics was a response to the state’s concern with its impoverished and mentally disabled citizens. Looking back, was the movement’s goal to improve the human race by assisting evolution (a slow process) or simply remove troublesome inherited characteristics from reaching the next generation (quick and brutal)? 

So how did Indiana become the first state culpable in designing such a destructive law to begin with? There are three key Hoosiers who were major proponents for the passing and implementation of the Indiana Plan, the first being Dr. Harry Sharp. Sharp was the prison physician at Jeffersonville reformatory. Starting in 1899 Dr. Sharp, with written consent from the convicted, began conducting routine vasectomies on his male prisoners. Between the years of 1899-1909, Dr. Sharp had performed four hundred and sixty-five of these surgeries. Three hundred and eighty-four surgeries were done before the passage of Indiana’s sterilization law. Dr. Sharp and his clinical studies on the surgeries itself, as well as the impact on male prisoners following the surgery, were published in clinical magazines all throughout the country.  They were then used as a scientific legitimization that sterilization can be deemed beneficial physically and mentally to those operated on. Dr. Sharp often argued in his publications that crime and degeneracy were hereditary in nature, and therefore sterilization is necessary in order to eliminate most crime within a community.

The next two individuals were G. Henri Bogart and John Hurty, both physicians highly revered within the medical community, who advocated for the sterilization of those deemed “unfit” by licensed professionals. Their opinions were published in a plethora of medical journals as well as influential national papers during the early twentieth century. Dr. Bogart alone published thirty articles on human sterilization between 1908 and 1910. Dr. Hurty not only promoted the use of sterilization but also the enactment of marriage restrictions (who was restricted?), public vaccination and public sanitation. All subjects he bundled together and used as his platform during his involvement with The United States Health Movement.

There were some legal hiccups along the way; the law was overturned in 1921 by the Indiana Supreme Court due to perceived violations of the 14th Amendment.  but diligent legislators put forth a new more stringent law in 1927 once the United States Supreme Court sided with Virginia in the now landmark case, Buck v. Bell. As a result of the Buck case, states felt emboldened to move forward with their crusades to combat poverty and disease via eugenics.

 Ultimately, the real reason became quite clear. Indiana legislators worked to enact laws that would sterilize citizens that they deemed undesirable: criminals, the mentally ill, the rural poor, orphans, county home residents, unwed mothers, etc. Why? To save the State of Indiana as much money as possible. “Many of these shiftless, feebleminded folks can barely eke out a living for themselves, but that does not deter them from marrying and propagating their kind, thus adding to the burden of the state.” CITATION Ass96 \l 1033  (Associated Press 1996) If “weak minded” and “morally corrupt” people were prohibited from reproducing, there would be less need for institutions of all kinds (because clearly all behavior must be hereditary, right?).

So how did this process work in an institutional setting? It was up to the superintendent of the institution to “nominate” patients for sterilization and present them to the institution’s governing board. Then a hearing was held for the patient and potentially a family member to take part in that would determine of the patient was a candidate for sterilization. IF the patient or their family was unhappy with the outcome of this hearing? They could fight the governing board in the courts. In 1931, it was decided to allow county judges (as long as they had the approval of two licensed physicians), to order the sterilization of a patient during their commitment procedure, circumventing the institutions’ boards altogether. In 1935, Representative Dr. Horace Willan went even further when he proposed that any patient that could potentially become a parent be sterilized within 30 days of admission to a state hospital if physicians deemed it “necessary”.  CITATION Uni35 \l 1033 (United Press 1935). (And 80% of those polled in the cited article were most definitely in favor of mandatory sterilization in 1937.)

Except for the gap between 1921 and enactment of 1927, the sterilization laws remained in effect in Indiana until 1974. CITATION Sta74 \l 1033  (State of Indiana 1974)  In the period the law was enacted, roughly 2500 Indiana residents were sterilized in order to protect the tax payers of Indiana. And while state mandated sterilizations all but stopped in the 1960’s due to cost, there will still other ways of thwarting “undesirables” from having children. One of the most enforced was simply making it unlawful for certain populations of Indiana residents to get married. Indiana Law 111 passed in 1905 prohibited a marriage license from being issued to anyone under guardianship as a person of unsound mind, and specifically prohibited men who had spent any time in the past five years in a county asylum or home for indigent persons. The Indiana marriage laws remained on the books in some capacity until 1977. CITATION Sta77 \l 1033  (State of Indiana 1977)

Public approval of eugenic theory began to wane after clear examples from Nazi Germany showed what could happen in a society when its people began placing value on certain members within a group and denigrating members of others. Science was also starting to reveal that earlier data on biological heredity was not as accurate as once believed. New information revealed that a multitude of mental disabilities are not inherited at all, while human behaviors are shaped more by environment than by heredity. Near the end of the war, the world learned of the atrocities committed at the hands of Nazis and their concentration camps, this only strengthened western culture’s opposition to sterilization and eugenics. America would instead place higher emphasis on individual and personal rights, and finally in 1974, Indiana’s sterilization laws were repealed.

In reviewing the history of Indiana’s compulsory sterilization laws, it becomes all too clear that sometimes, history does repeat itself—and not for the better. Overwhelmingly the victims of this program were the under-educated, the poor, and people of color. We owe it to those victims to not only know about our state’s part in this chapter of American medical history, but to work diligently to ensure it never happens again. We also need to acknowledge that systemic racism and classism, direct mechanisms behind Indiana’s eugenics movement, still negatively impact our communities today.


Further Learning:

Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen

Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America by Alexandra Stern

A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era edited by Paul Lombardo

The Eugenics Crusade. WGBH Boston https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/eugenics-crusade/


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