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July 15, 2013 at 11:32 AM

The recurring cancer of eugenics

Eugenics in America is a recurring cancer that recedes but never truly goes away.

The latest reminder was the Center for Investigative Reporting’s alarming report about 148 unapproved sterilizations in a California prison. The doctor who was paid nearly $150,000 to perform the sterilizations, James Heinrich, defending sterilizations as a wise investment.

“Over a 10-year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money,” Heinrich said, “compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children – as they procreated more.”

These tubal ligations, the doctor assures, came only with patient consent. But prisoners have forfeited free will, and are under state control, so manipulation and coercion is inherent in any consent. The law, for example, presumes any sex between an inmate and corrections officer to be rape, because there is no equal control.Valley State Prison for Women / AP photo

More troubling is the history of the eugenics movement, “embedded” in Heinrich’s quote, as Washington Post columnist Leonard Pitts wrote this weekend.

Maybe you think that makes perfect sense. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine someone saying the same thing on Fox “News” next week. After all, character assassination of the less fortunate has become commonplace. A certain wealthy presidential candidate famously described them as the 47 percent of us who are irredeemable.

But maybe you know enough of history to hear the awful parallel embedded in Heinrich’s calculation. You see, this is not the first time Americans have had the bright idea of breeding out undesirables. Indeed, laws mandating forced sterilization were all the rage in America in the early 20th century. Even the Nazis were impressed. They modeled their statutes on ours.

Washington has its own history of forced sterilizations. The law was first passed in 1909 as a “progressive” policy. Over the next three decades, 685 people were sterilized, mostly at Western, Eastern and (the now-closed) Northern State Hospitals. Several years ago, I tried to track down several of those patients, but ran into barriers of confidentiality and age, and never published. But Historian Joanne Woiak put together an excellent University of Washington symposium on 100th anniversary of Washington’s eugenics program (her interview is below).

It struck me that the Washington State Supreme Court ruled, in a 1942 case called In re Sterilization of Hollis Hendrickson, did Washington a visionary favor by declaring the state eugenic laws was unconstitutional. That allow the Evergreen State to be an early exiter of a practice that linger in Oregon until 1981.

It also strikes me now that the 1909 law is still on the books. Unenforceable, yes, because of the ruling. But escaping the dismal history eugenics should start with erasing that law.



Comments | Topics: eugenics, prison


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