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‘It’s Complicated’: Eugenics in the U.S.

History professor speaks at Drew.

May 2018 – It’s complicated.

In sum, that’s how scholar Molly Ladd-Taylor, speaking to students at Drew University, described the factors behind an ugly chapter in American history: the sterilization of the poor and “feebleminded” in the 20th century.

Yes, self-proclaimed experts and elites promulgated a policy of eugenics on the poor, particularly women and minorities. But that conventional narrative omits several key forces, according to Ladd-Taylor, a professor of history at York University in Ontario, Canada. Among them:

Public opinion – Despite revulsion today around the practice of eugenics—which echoed the policies of Nazi Germany—there’s was public support for sterilization in the early part of the 20th century.

Financial concerns – Many taxpayers and politicians were averse to funding social services for the poor. Sterilization, to them, seemed a cheaper alternative.

Politics – Publicly elected and appointed judges upheld the practice of sterilization under certain circumstances. Most infamously, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in a 1927 ruling affirming sterilization in Virginia, said, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Overall, Ladd-Taylor, author of Fixing the Poor: Eugenic Sterilization and Child Welfare in the Twentieth Century, presented a nuanced picture of the dynamics of eugenics in the U.S. The practice was driven by state laws and reached its peak in the 1930s, though it continued in some states after World War II, despite horror surrounding Nazi atrocities.

In particular, Ladd-Taylor noted how the laws and their classification of certain individuals as feebleminded, in effect, punished the most vulnerable, including women who had been sexually assaulted.

“The point is, in the context of poverty, employment discrimination and a lack of access to safe and low-cost effective birth control and abortion, there is not always a clear distinction between sterilization and women’s reproductive choice,” Ladd-Taylor said. “There’s a wide range of things in poor women’s experience that count as coercion. I’m arguing that we need a more complicated narrative to understand these sterilization cases.”

Ladd-Taylor, the guest of Drew’s Women’s and Gender Studies program and its Visiting Scholar series, was introduced by Wendy Kolmar, director of Women’s and Gender Studies and a professor of English.