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Breeding Contempt

The History of Coerced Sterilization in the United States

Mark A. Largent

Publication Year: 2008

Most closely associated today with the Nazis and World War II atrocities, eugenics is sometimes described as a government-orchestrated breeding program, other times as a pseudo-science, and often as the first step leading to genocide. Less frequently is it depicted as a movement having links to the United States. But eugenics does have a history in this country, and Mark Largent tells that story by exploring one of the most disturbing aspects, the compulsory asterilization of more than 64,000 Americans.

Published by: Rutgers University Press


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p. vii-vii

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pp. ix-x

I owe a tremendous debt of thanks to the many people who have helped me in my career and in writing this book.My parents, Frank and Betty Largent, encouraged me to pursue my interests wherever they might lead me.My advisers,Andrew Conteh at Moorhead State University, Constance Hilliard at the University of North Texas, and especially Sally Gregory Kohlstedt at the University of Minnesota,...

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Introduction: In the Name of Progress

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pp. 1-10

American physicians coercively sterilized tens of thousands of their patients over the last 150 years. Their efforts began around 1850, and by the 1890s the movement had grown into a full-blown crusade to sterilize or asexualize people who doctors believed would produce undesirable children. Even though they exerted significant influence on American culture, physicians alone could not garner the...

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Chapter 1: Nipping the Problem in the Bud

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pp. 11-38

The first professionals to advocate coerced sterilization as a solution to America’s social ills were physicians interested in reducing the incidence of crime, or, more accurately, in reducing the number of criminals who produced children who would themselves presumably demonstrate the weaknesses they inherited from their parents. Degeneracy, transferred from parent to child through either genetic or cultural inheritance, was a concept that drew increasing study throughout...

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Chapter 2:Eugenics and the Professionalization of American Biology

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pp. 39-63

American biologists arrived quite late to the discussions about coercively sterilizing those citizens who were presumed to carry hereditary defects, and, it turns out, they were among the last to leave.Nonetheless, their influence on the movement was significant because they provided scientific authenticity to the claims made by sterilization proponents, and they established that at least some human traits, including certain clearly undesirable ailments, were heritable. For biologists,...

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Chapter 3: The Legislative Solution

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pp. 64-95

Over the last 125 years, physicians in at least thirty-seven states sterilized some of the citizens that they considered unfit, and most of these physicians had the imprimatur of their states’ legislatures. After decades of efforts, advocates of coerced sterilization finally persuaded thirty-two state legislatures to enact laws that would allow physicians to sterilize mental health patients, the chronically ill, and certain criminals. The call for compulsory sterilization laws was part of the...

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Chapter 4: Buck v. Bell and the First Organized Resistance to Coerced Sterilization

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pp. 96-115

Before the late 1920s, the only organized resistance to compulsory sterilization laws came from local or regional antisterilization groups. Take, for example, Lora Little’s Anti-Sterilization League, which organized in 1913 to oppose Oregon’s compulsory sterilization law. Little’s opposition to sterilization was part of her broader animosity toward the medical profession motivated by the death of her seven-year-old son. She believed that her son had died from a reaction to a smallpox...

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Chapter 5:The Professions Retreat

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pp. 116-137

Beginning in the early 1930s, some of the American professions that supported eugenics and compulsory sterilization, including physicians, social scientists, and biologists, slowly withdrew their support. It took decades before widespread support for coerced sterilizations completely eroded and the word eugenics acquired its current negative connotations. After some early resistance from criminologists, who generally rejected hereditarian explanations for crime but accepted...

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Conclusion:The New Coerced Sterilization Movement

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pp. 138-147

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and continuing today, a number of deeply problematic assumptions about certain citizens’ supposed social inadequacies have allowed for the coerced sterilization of tens of thousands of mental health patients and prisoners. In many cases, state wards signed permission forms, but the coercive nature of institutional settings is obvious, and it is difficult to defend the operations as truly voluntary. While physicians had campaigned...

Appendix: Bibliography of Twentieth-Century American Biology Textbooks

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pp. 149-155


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pp. 157-180


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pp. 189-199


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pp. 201-213

About the Author

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p. 215-215

E-ISBN-13: 9780813543802
E-ISBN-10: 0813543800
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813541822
Print-ISBN-10: 0813541824

Page Count: 228
Illustrations: 6 photographs, 4 tables, 2 graphs
Publication Year: 2008