The Echo of Eugenics That Comes Up In Conversations About My Family

The Covent Garden Night Mare by Thomas Rowlandson (1784). Source: Public Domain Review

Three years ago, I became a mother when my hubs and I were lucky enough to be allowed to adopt two little boys, not quite a year and a half old each, who quickly became the twin kings of my heart.

Two years later, I was finally getting the hang of twins when we got the phone call we knew we could expect. One of my sons had a brand-new baby brother. “Do you want him?” We visited him every day in the hospital, and ten days later, we decided we could parent three. He immediately became the object of adoration from all four of us.

The following year brought a new baby birth brother. We knew we couldn’t parent four children and be the parents we wanted to be. We visited baby brother in NICU and held our breaths until we met his new foster parents who are, as it turns out, blessedly loving, compassionate, and sane.

Now this next part exclusively happens when I’m talking to women; usually white, very friendly, and nearly always in the presence of my children. For whatever reason, I’m recounting this story. The woman I’m talking to purses her lips, stares into the distance, and says, “It’s a shame they can’t tie her tubes, if she’s just going to keep having kids.” Then she’ll smile at me as though she’s said something smart and caring, like she’s on my side.

My eldest sons are old enough and smart enough to gather that this woman is saying their baby brothers shouldn’t exist. That perhaps even they shouldn’t exist. And that where they come from is bad. Wrong. I can see my sons’ guarded expressions, the way they look away from this person as they continue to play nearby.

The well-meaning women are not alone. Recently, a Tennessee judge first offered, then rescinded, a program by which men in jail could get out faster if they had vasectomies. He was concerned about the pipeline the “abandoned” children of these men were placed in (Rosenblatt, 2017). To me, he clearly assumed that a mass vasectomy program (as opposed to maybe having someone medically qualified individually discussing the option with each man) was the easy solution to their irresponsibility.

It’s not that I’m anti-birth control. To fully disclose my own biases, I’m firmly pro-choice, all birth-control, including abortion. I think women die less if abortion is legal, and no human is an incubator to be regulated. And at the same time, on a personal level, I can conceive of very few situations in which I could choose to have an abortion. Though isn’t it convenient for me that I’ll never be faced with that choice?

And isn’t choice the crux of what we’re talking about here?

Eugenic legislation started in the US as early in 1849, and some experts say that our nation was the first in the modern era to systematically put in place eugenic laws. Those laws really gathered steam during the Progressive Era. The same reform movements that brought us the weekend and anti-monopoly protection fretted over the worth of the human “stock” in our midst. Indiana was the first state to successfully put in place eugenic laws, with Washington and California close behind. All in all, about 33 states began forcing the sterilization of undesirables.

This class of undesirable qualities included drug abuse, alcoholism, epilepsy, “pauperism,” “feeblemindedness” (which at the time included unmarried pregnant women), deafness, blindness, “sexual perversion,” anyone suffering from TB or syphilis, and of course the insane and the criminal.. Though WWII chilled the fervor, it’s estimated that 25–50% of Native American women were forcibly sterilized in the 1970s and ’80s, and 30% of Puerto Rican women by the ’60s. Estimates of nationwide statistics range from 60,000 to 70,000.

My home state has forcibly sterilized 2,341 under a law requiring the sterilization of the “feebleminded” between 1921 and 1983, and the most ardent supporter of that clause was our state’s first female physician and a famous suffragette. She wrote in our local newspaper, “the greatest curse of the race comes through our vicious criminal and insane classes. . . . These inferior and dangerous citizens should be dealt with not by chloroform or strangulation, but by the science of surgery.” That was the opinion of Dr. Bethenia Owens-Adair.

Doesn’t that sound a lot like, “I wish we could tie their tubes”?

But I think to really get it, you have to know Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court ruling that rendered this constitutional (which still stands). Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote in his decision, regarding Carrie Buck, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Carrie Buck’s impoverished single mother was institutionalized for promiscuity and as a child she was sent to live with a foster family. At the age of 17 she was raped (allegedly by her foster parents’ nephew) and was institutionalized, also for promiscuity or perhaps to protect the nephew. After she gave birth, her tubes were tied. Because three generations of imbeciles were enough. Her foster family, by the way, adopted her baby who, like her birth mother, did very well in school, until she died at age 8. Ms. Buck got out of the institution, married a widower, and died very well thought of.

As an adoptive mother, I fear for the lives of any future birth brothers and sisters my children may have. Our foster system is deeply and demonstrably broken. Foster parents are at best angels on earth, at middling overstretched, and at worst serial predators with plum pickings. Any baby who goes into that system is in danger. But my sons’ birth mothers were in the system. And the system failed them. And their adult lives are in great measure a result of that. I wish them peace, I wish them healing, I fear for their babies, but I don’t yearn for their forced sterilization, because I know what that’s meant in our nation’s history, and I don’t know them well enough to know what’s best for them. Not only that, but I’m not going to pretend that the system that failed them as children knows what’s best for them as adults.

I get it. Modern life is complicated. When we encounter the complicated, we legitimately depend on platitudes. If we didn’t depend on platitudes, daily life would resemble a Quaker meeting. But unless our platitudes acknowledge the complexity of modern life, we end up sounding like our past:

“These inferior and dangerous citizens should be dealt with not by chloroform or strangulation, but by the science of surgery.”


Cohen, A. (2016, March 24). The Supreme Court Ruling That Led To 70,000 Forced Sterilizations [Interview by T. Gross, Transcript]. In Fresh Air. Philidelphia: WHYY.

Eugenics in Virginia: Buck v. Bell and Forced Sterilization. (n.d.). Retrieved September 12, 2017, from

Garcia, S.(2015, October 25). 8 Shocking Facts About Sterilization in U.S. History. Retrieved September 12, 2017, from

Grimes, D. A. (2015, January 15). The Bad Old Days: Abortion in America Before Roe v. Wade. Retrieved September 12, 2017, from

The Indiana Supreme Court overturned the law in 1921 in “Williams et al v. Smith, 131 NE 2 (Ind.), 1921” (PDF). Northeastern Reporter. 131: 2.

Iredale, R. (2000). Eugenics and its Relevance to Contemporary Health Care. Nursing Ethics, 7(3), 205–214. doi:10.1177/096973300000700303

Kaelber, L. (2012). Eugenics: Compulsory Sterilization in 50 American States. Retrieved September 12, 2017, from

Rosenblatt, K (July 28, 2017) Tennessee Judge Who Offered Sentence Reductions For Vasectomies Changes Cource. NBC News. Retrieved on September 14, 2017 from

Smith, J. D. (n.d.). Carrie Buck (1906–1983). Retrieved September 12, 2017, from

Square, Z. P. (2016, January 07). That Time The United States Sterilized 60,000 Of Its Citizens. Retrieved September 12, 2017, from

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