Hunter is a Clinical Psychologist M.A. (PsyD 2023) who specializes in mood, anxiety, and trauma disorders.
Where It All Began
The eugenics movement arose from research conducted by Sir Francis Galton in which he concluded that the children of distinguished individuals were more likely to become distinguished than the children of people who were not distinguished.
His findings led to the idea of selective breeding as a way to encourage those with desirable characteristics to marry and produce offspring while discouraging the reproduction of people considered less desirable.
Galton called this process eugenics, which comes from the Greek word “eugenes” and means well-born. He described eugenics as “the cultivation of race” and “the science of improving stock.”
Galton noted that some form of eugenics has existed for centuries as infanticide had been practiced by the ancient Greeks, particularly in Sparta and Rome. For example, the Spartans used to throw sick babies off of cliffs to their deaths.
All About Control
In plainer terms, the eugenics movement aimed to increase the number of positive traits in society by encouraging the union of people with desirable qualities, such as high intelligence, and allowing for the sterilization of those who were considered mentally or physically defective. This was a more scientific way for people to express their racism, ableism, and control over women’s reproductive rights.
Creating Selective Laws
And of course, the United States was the first country to develop and implement eugenic laws. In 1907 the state of Indiana created a law that allowed “confirmed criminals, idiots, rapists, and imbeciles to be involuntarily sterilized.” In the following ten years, sterilization laws were created and passed in seventeen states and by 1925, thirty-three states had some sort of eugenic law in place.
The eugenics movement was widespread in the United States and while it was the first country to develop eugenic policies, it certainly was not the only country in the world to approach the idea of selective breeding with vigor. Several countries around the world participated in the eugenics movement and developed eugenic policies that had devastatingly detrimental effects on their citizens.
Some of the bigger players in the development and promotion of eugenics include Canada, Japan, England, and Germany (shocking). These countries participated in the eugenics movement throughout the early to mid-20th century and while interest in eugenics began to lessen after the exposing of Nazi-regime atrocities, the detrimental effects of eugenics still linger for those affected by its policies.
The eugenics movement started gaining traction in Canada due to the large influx of immigrants that began in the 1890s as well as the growing concern among Canadians about the mentally ill and feeble-minded people in Canadian society. Apparently, immigrants and the mentally ill are the most terrifying entities in any country.
In 1918 the Canadian National Committee on Mental Hygiene (CNCMH) was created with the purpose of fighting delinquency, unemployment, and illegal sexual activity in Canada. The CNCMH performed surveys on the health and wellness of citizens in each Canadian province.
The results of these surveys showed that the health and well-being of Canadians was declining. In 1921, as a response to these findings, the CNCMH advocated for the sterilization of people with mental defects.
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In 1921, the United Farmers of Alberta began to promote the creation of eugenic policies. Additionally, the United Farm Women of Alberta advocated for the establishment of compulsory sterilization as they sought “racial betterment through the weeding out of undesirable strains.” Guess women weren’t as supportive of other women as they are today.
The Sexual Sterilization Act was passed in 1928. This law allowed for the legal sterilization of patients in mental health hospitals. Physicians or psychiatrists would request sterilization for their patients and present their application to the Alberta Eugenics Board (AEB). The AEB would then interview the patient and request the patient’s or their guardian’s consent for sterilization. The AEB often reviewed around 13 cases during their one-hour long meetings. This equals out to about 5 minutes of deliberation per case!
Many government officials in Alberta during the 1930s began to voice their concerns over what they believed to be too restrictive of a sterilization law. In 1937 Dr. Wallace Cross, the Social Credit Minister of Health, stated that in the nine years the Sexual Sterilization Act had been in place “only four hundred ‘abnormal persons’ had been sterilized and not the two thousand that he believed were qualified.”
The government in Alberta soon proposed an amendment to the law that would allow sterilization to be conducted without the consent of the patient. This 1937 amendment permitted forced sterilization to be performed on people labelled mentally defective. Then in 1942, additional reasons for the authorization of sterilization were added to the amendment and included physical conditions, such as epilepsy and syphilis, as well as behavioral concerns like prostitution and alcoholism.
The Sexual Sterilization Act was finally repealed in 1972; however, during the forty-three years it existed the AEB had approved the sterilization of 4,739 patients with 2,834 sterilizations actually completed. Over 60% of the sterilizations were conducted on women and 55% of those sterilized were considered mentally unfit.
British Columbia enacted its Sexual Sterilization Act in 1933 which authorized the sterilization of “any institutionalized person considered capable of passing on supposedly inheritable, undesirable social characteristics (e.g., criminality, prostitution, alcoholism, and addiction).” Basically, if your genetics sucked you were screwed.
Sterilizations in British Columbia were able to be conducted with or without the individual’s consent or knowledge. At least 330 people were sterilized due to the Sexual Sterilization Act. This law was repealed in 1973, however the sterilization of people with mental defects continued until 1986 when the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that the sterilization of a 24-year-old woman with an intellectual disability could not be conducted without her consent.
The eugenics movement in England struggled greatly, even though the idea of selective breeding was developed by Sir Francis Galton. The greatest success that the eugenics movement had in England occurred between 1901 and 1914. During this time important political figures showed some interest in eugenics as Arthur Balfour and Winston Churchill, who both served as the Prime Minister of England, had attended the International Eugenics Congress of 1912 in London.
The eugenics movement began to gain traction in the government and in 1913 the Eugenics Education Society created and passed into law the Mental Deficiency Act. This law created the Board of Control for Lunacy and Mental Deficiency which was in charge of providing care for those considered idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, or moral imbeciles.
It gave authorities the power to place people in institutions or in the custody of a parent or guardian if they were considered an idiot or imbecile, if a person who met criteria for any of the four categories was under 21 years of age, or if a person of any category had been neglected or abandoned, found guilty of committing a crime, labelled a habitual drunk, considered incapable of learning, or if they were pregnant with or had given birth to an illegitimate child.
While the Mental Deficiency Act remained in law until 1959, support for the eugenics movement quickly began to decline after the end of World War I. In 1918 the eugenics movement in England slowly came to a halt as it had begun to lose political credibility.
Many people who supported the eugenics movement started shifting their support to less extreme eugenic proposals, such as advocating for voluntary sterilization instead of compulsory, while others stopped promoting eugenics all together.
By the late 1930s “eugenics as a full-scale political program became identified with the extreme right-wing” due to the use of eugenic policies in Nazi Germany. The last effort to create a sterilization law in England occurred in 1935 when the Joint Committee on Voluntary Sterilization proposed legalizing sterilization for individuals whose medical history indicated that they had a high chance of producing offspring with mental defect.
The Minister of Health rejected their proposal as the government, which was run by the Conservative Party at the time, “was not prepared to consider the issue while continued opposition from the Labor movement and the Roman Catholic Church threatened to undermine it.”
While the eugenics movement may have been created in England, it never had as much influence and power as it did in other countries around the world.
Japan’s first eugenic policy began in 1907 with the Leprosy Prevention Law that authorized the segregation of lepers in hospitals where they were often sterilized against their will. The forced sterilization of people considered mentally unfit did not come into law until 1940 with the introduction of the National Eugenic Law.
Sterilizations were conducted on criminals as well as “people with perceived genetic disorders such as color blindness, hemophilia, ichthyosis, epilepsy, and mental illness.” Between 1941 and 1945 at least 454 people were sterilized due to this law.
Another eugenic policy was passed in 1948 called the Eugenic Protection Law which aimed to limit the reproduction of people considered defective. This law permitted forced abortions and sterilization in women who were deemed mentally or physically unfit.
Medical conditions that allowed for these procedures “included schizophrenia, manic-depressive psychosis, epilepsy, erotomania, genetic predisposition to commit criminal acts, Huntington’s disease, muscular dystrophy, albinism, color blindness, deafness, and hemophilia.”
In 1953 the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced that eugenic procedures were allowed to be completed without the patient’s consent and that it was acceptable to restrain the patient, sedate them, or deceive them into accepting the procedure.
Then in 1957 the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced that all prefectures in Japan should complete more sterilizations in the coming year in order to be able to keep government funds that were used for such procedures.
By the time the Eugenic Protection Law was repealed in 1996, around 16,520 forced sterilizations had been completed. The Ministry of Health and Welfare refused to issue an apology or provide compensation for victims in 1997 since “the sterilizations were legal under existing law and …were not coercive.” I think the Ministry and I have different opinions as to what is and is not considered coercive.
The atrocities committed by Nazi Germany will be reported in a separate article.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Hunter