Hannah Bailey: What can we learn from Kansas’ history of forced sterilization? (Column)

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More than a century before Kansas anti-abortion activists crusaded for the “Value them Both” amendment, so-called Progressive activists championed a different reproductive cause. In 1917, activist women urged Kansas legislators to pass a stricter forced sterilization bill. 

“This year the club women lined up behind the measure,” The Chanute Daily Tribune reported in March 1917. “They watched it from the day it was introduced until the last night of the 1917 session, when they applauded as it ran the final gauntlet.”

Why were these activists so excited about the sterilization bill? The previous year, a 9-year-old Edna Dinsmore, was tragically found raped and murdered in Topeka. The suspect, Fred Bissell, had previously been incarcerated for “committing an unnatural crime against a little boy.” 

Activist women were incensed that someone previously convicted of sexual crimes could reoffend upon release from prison. They campaigned for a sterilization law in Kansas on behalf of future innocent victims. 

The club women “resolved to carry out the motto ‘Avenge the death of Edna Dinsmore,’” according to the Chanute Daily Tribune. “The sterilization bill was their weapon. They waged a long and difficult fight — and they won.’”

This was actually not Kansas’s first forced sterilization bill. In 1913, the state passed “an act to prevent the procreation of habitual criminals, idiots, epileptics, imbeciles, and insane, and providing a penalty for the violation thereof.” 

But critics argued that the 1913 law, which required court approval for sterilizations, had too much red tape. The new 1917 law allowed a number of reform, prison, or mental health institutions across the state to forcibly sterilize residents. Rather than the courts, the procedures had to be approved by a state board composed of institutional leaders and health care professionals. As long as a hearing occurred, sterilizations could occur despite the protests of the individual or their guardians. 

Thirty-two states passed sterilization laws. The first was passed as early as 1907 in Indiana. This legislation was informed by eugenics, which applied evolutionary theories to modern human societies. Scientists, medical professionals, and politicians subscribed to the belief that supposedly “undesirable” traits could be bred out of the population if certain groups of people stopped procreating. Over the next three decades, eugenics became increasingly popular.

Eugenics was a white supremacist doctrine. At one 1923 conference, eugenicist Henry F. Osborn explained that “the right of the state to safeguard the character and integrity of the race or races on which its future depends is, to my mind, as incontestable as the right of the state to safeguard the health and morals of its peoples.” Eugenicists believed the preservation of the white race merited the state’s intervention in individuals’ reproduction. 

In accordance with this belief, in some institutions across the U.S., people of color were sterilized at higher rates than white people. Several Duke scholars even found that North Carolina’s approach to sterilization constituted genocide of Black populations in the 1950s and 1960s, according to a 2020 study in American Review of Political Economy. 

Eugenics gained both political support as well as popular acceptance. At the Kansas Free Fair in 1925 there was a “fitter family” contest. Forty families entered. They willingly provided judges with everything from family history, their medical backgrounds, to a sampling of bodily fluids. Judges included James Naismith, the renowned inventor of basketball. 

According to historian Laura Lovett, “winning families … had their pictures published in the local newspaper, and winning individuals were awarded a medal inscribed with a verse from the 16th Psalm, ‘Yea, I have a Godly heritage.’”

Following the passage of the 1917 law, Kansas began sterilizing residents of state institutions. The practice began somewhat slowly, but really took off after 1925. In 1928, the Kansas Supreme Court deemed the law to be constitutional. Scholar Julius Paul noted that after this case, the state sterilized about 2,000 victims, compared to roughly 350 in the preceding decade.

Sterilization gained national prominence after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1927 decision in the Buck v. Bell case. The Court upheld the constitutionality of forced sterilization with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s infamous quip that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” 

The laws were problematic for obvious reasons. State institutions were given the discretion to deprive people of their reproductive autonomy. Such laws also had other limitations in the lack of consensus around why, exactly, they existed. Did they function to prevent mental illness, which was thought to be heritable? Were they to punish so-called criminals for “sexual deviancy?” Did they exist to prevent ill-behaved and oversexed youth from having children?

This lack of clarity came to a head in Kansas in 1937, when a member of US Congress, Kathryn O’Laughlin McCarthy, discovered that the Kansas Girls’ Industrial School in Beloit sterilized 62 underaged girls. This was sometimes done against the wishes of residents’ families. 

The school functioned as a reformatory and youth prison. Girls were sentenced to the rural school when they were convicted of a crime. As such, the Industrial School was one of several state institutions where sterilizations were legally allowed. The school did not hide the practice, and its previous biennial report referenced sterilizations at the school.

Nevertheless, McCarthy, a Catholic, openly expressed her outrage at the fact that, upon viewing a list of sterilization victims, she found “none of them diseased or imbecilic.” Murky justifications were given for sterilizing children under 16. Some were sterilized only for “insubordination.”

In a society where motherhood was largely viewed as the pinnacle of social achievement for women, many found this to be a travesty. The Girls’ Industrial School case garnered national attention. New York’s Daily News reported on the incident. Citizens wrote letters to McCarthy. One expressed outrage at the fact that “this operation not only deprives girls of the steadying influence of marriage but even acts as a very effective barrier to any married life at all.”

All told, at least 2,851 people in Kansas were forcibly sterilized, according to Ian Cummings. Some have claimed that number is upwards of 3,000. Sterilization in other Kansas institutions did not garner the same level of public outrage as the scandal at the Girls’ Industrial School. The state reportedly sterilized 779 victims for being “feeble-minded.” 

The Kansas Legislature quietly repealed the state’s forced sterilization statute in April 1965. This was an unprecedented move. Kansas was “the first American state to repeal its sterilization law without either adverse litigation or re-enactment of a new law,” according Paul in 1965. 

Even after states repealed their forced sterilization laws in the mid-20th century, there have been many reports of coerced or forced sterilization, particularly among incarcerated people and people of color. In 2013, news broke that 144 women in California correctional facilities were subjected to sterilization procedures. 

“Of those 144 patients, at least 39 were not offered informed consent or underwent procedures that were completed without the appropriate physician signatures on consent forms,” according to Truthout. 

In 2020, a nurse alerted the public that a doctor at the ICE facility in rural Ocilla, Georgia had sterilized a number of detained immigrant women without their consent. Dr. Mahendra Amin treated at least 16 women who reported medical abuse in the facility.

“In almost every woman’s chart, Dr. Amin listed symptoms such as heavy bleeding with clots and chronic pelvic pain, which could justify surgery. But some of the women said they never experienced or reported those symptoms to him,” according to the New York Times.

Kansas’s history of forced and coerced sterilization bears lessons for the present. Some anti-abortion activists, horrified by forced sterilization campaigns, may contend that abortion bans serve the opposite function. But sterilization procedures such as tubal ligations, like abortion, are a form of reproductive health care when patients consent to such procedures. 

Eugenics was a pseudoscientific justification for states to enforce white supremacist, anti-disability agendas. Abortion bans ignore scientific and sociological research. Studies have demonstrated that access to abortion prevents maternal mortality. “A recent study estimated that banning abortion in the U.S. would lead to a 21% increase in the number of pregnancy-related deaths overall and a 33% increase among Black women,” according to Harvard professor Ana Langer.

Economic research has demonstrated that a U.S. abortion ban will lead to further widening of gender gaps in educational attainment and career stability, particularly for Black women and women of color. 

On a purely political level, good things generally do not result from passing off individualized reproductive decisions to institutions and panels. Much like the uncertainty surrounding who, precisely, should be sterilized under the state’s broadly defined statute, many states are already finding confounding and uncertain terms in the now-instituted abortion trigger laws. 

Many bemoan state bureaucracies and the excess of public servants. By applying an either/or rhetoric to a highly nuanced and medically complex issue, anti-abortion advocates are assuring that lawyers, hospital staff, and political entities will ultimately make decisions about pregnancy and abortion care. 

— Hannah Bailey (she/her) has a doctorate from the University of Kansas in American Studies, where she studied sterilization law in Kansas.

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