Long before Adolf Hitler espoused his ideas about a master race, Hoosier scientists advocated selective reproduction to improve the gene pool.
Indiana Gov. J. Frank Hanly signed the nation’s first eugenics law in 1907, mandating sterilization of certain “criminals, idiots, rapists and imbeciles” in state custody. Thirty states followed suit.
“Today they couch it as a pseudo-science, but that’s not the way scientists saw it at the time,” says Jason S. Lantzer, history professor and honors coordinator at Butler University. “It was cutting edge.”
Derived from the Greek words “eu,” meaning good, and “genos,” meaning offspring, eugenics pursued two seemingly compatible goals: promoting reproduction by people of strong mind and body while discouraging procreation among the criminally deviant and mentally ill.
Reputable people accepted the theory that genes bore the blame for society’s ills. Speaking in 1879 to the Social Science Association of Indiana, Harriet M. Foster contended that mental retardation was inherited. The Board of State Charities, which oversaw prisons, mental hospitals and orphans’ homes, likewise traced poverty, crime and mental illness to genetics.
In 1901, the Indiana General Assembly passed a bill that made unsupervised, feeble-minded women aged 16 to 45 wards of the state to prevent them from bearing children. In 1905, the legislature prohibited marriage licenses for imbeciles, epileptics and those of unsound mind. The 1907 law authorized state institutions, in consultation with “a committee of experts,” to perform vasectomies on inmates for whom procreation was deemed inadvisable.
Why was Indiana first? A Hoosier doctor, Harry Clay Sharp, pioneered the vasectomy as a safer, less painful alternative to castration. Sharp performed the operation on about 225 prisoners at the Indiana Reformatory in Jeffersonville before the state had a law allowing it. “The 1907 law is in some ways a reaction to Harry Sharp,” Lantzer explains.
Gov. Thomas R. Marshall halted the sterilizations in 1909 because of concerns about their constitutionality. In 1921, Gov. James P. Goodrich observed that the law was not being followed so he pushed for a test case in the courts.
In a decision ahead of its time, the Indiana Supreme Court struck down the law as a violation of the 14th Amendment’s due process clause. The court said the law violated inmates’ rights by not allowing them to cross-examine the state’s experts or to argue that the operation was inappropriate for their condition.
Eugenics sputtered along for the next several years. In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed a Virginia law, which authorized sterilization of inmates suffering from insanity, idiocy and epilepsy, among other traits. The law had been written with procedural protections so it might pass constitutional muster. In upholding the law, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
The ruling in Buck vs. Bell led to an immediate rise in forced sterilizations across the country, and prompted Indiana to write a new law with a guaranteed appeals process.
Eugenics lost favor in the 1940s and 1950s, due to Nazi Germany’s barbaric practices and the United States’ reawakened awareness of individual rights. By then, an estimated 65,000 people had undergone sterilization nationwide with California most aggressive at 20,000. Indiana’s 2,400 paled by comparison.
In the 1970s, Gov. Otis R. Bowen pushed for the repeal of all sterilization and restrictive marriage laws in Indiana, and the legislature obliged. The Buck vs. Bell ruling has never been overturned.
The historical marker remembering the state’s eugenics law is located between the Statehouse and the Indiana State Library at 140 N. Senate Avenue, Indianapolis.
This is part a series of essays about Hoosier history that will lead up to the celebration of the state’s bicentennial in December. Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.