The Eugenics Movement 1880-1940

Growing urbanization in the late 19th century brought greater visibility for
people with disabilities, along with the idea that perhaps all men are not created
equal after all. Mentally “defective” persons were seen as inevitably criminal
and sexually promiscuous. It was believed that they reproduced more rapidly
than the rest of the population and would overwhelm civilization if not held in
check. Mental deficiency came to be viewed as one of civilization’s most serious
problems. Poorly designed “research,” such as the infamous studies of the
Jukes and the Kallikaks, linked mental deficiency to heredity and to criminal
behavior. The proposed solution to society’s problems was to improve the human
race through selective breeding or eugenics. Involuntary castration or
ovariectomies were recommended, and hundreds were performed (2).
In 1910 Alfred Binet developed the first intelligence tests. Unfortunately,
his tests were misinterpreted and his test scores used to prove that criminals,
prostitutes, and alcoholics tended to be mentally retarded (3). A 1916 writer
• . . there is no investigator who denies the fearful role played by mental deficiency in
the production of vice, crime, and delinquency . . . . Not all criminals are feebleminded,
but all feeble-minded are at least potential criminals. That every feeble-minded
woman is a potential prostitute would hardly be disputed by anyone. (6)
Meanwhile, the small country schools established by Seguin (now deceased)
were allowed to bulge into isolated and permanent “warehouses,” protecting
mental “defectives” from society and society from their potential perversion
and criminality. Children at home were carefully sheltered from all things
Institutions for “defective delinquents” were established in t911, where
commitment was usually for life. Many inmates were committed on counts of
“rape” or “sodomy” (3). One can only wonder, regretfully, what were the circumstances
leading to these incarcerations, when the behavior of so many retarded
individuals was (and still is) the result of ignorance and lack of social
skills rather than of criminal intention.
Involuntary sterilization (including hysterectomies) was another means to
avert sexual disaster. Laws permitting involuntary sterilization, variously defined
to cover the mentally retarded, the mentally ill, epileptics, “sexual per

verts,” and “habitual criminals” spread to 32 states (2). In the 1927 case upholding
sterilization, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the
well-known opinion:
It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute dangerous degenerate
offspring for crimes or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those
who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory
vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes . . . . Three
generations of imbeciles are enough. (7)
And so the oppression continued. Although the earliest sterilization statutes
were punitive in intent, later laws were regarded as protection for society,
children, and retarded persons. Between 1907 and 1957, about 60,000 individual
were sterilized without their consent, many without their knowledge (7).
Yet by 1925 research studies showed that many patients with genetic mental
retardation were infertile and/or incapable of intercourse; in fact, less than onefifth
of those sterilized had ever been sexually active. Those who did have
children did not exceed the cultural norm for family size, and their children
were not necessarily retarded. Other studies demonstrated that criminal behavior
arose from multiple factors other than mental retardation (2).
Public attitudes toward sterilization shifted slightly during World War II,
both a reaction to the horrors of Nazi “eugenic” sterilization programs and a
growing knowledge that retarded children were usually born to normal parents.
But, in spite of the fact that sterilization would not achieve the goal of eliminating
mental deficiency, sterilization statutes remained on the books in many
states until the 1970s.
During the 1940s there was little progress in treatment or education and
the sexuality of persons with mental retardation continued to be misinterpreted.
Many of them remained warehoused as “patients” in large institutions, often
including those who were accused of sexual “misconduct” (8).
Sexual behavior in these institutions was treated illogically; on the one
hand, any attempts at heterosexual communication were severely punished. The
senior author knows firsthand of punishment by solitary confinement and the
shaving of heads when heterosexual couples attempted to establish contact. On
the other hand, the staff tended to tolerate behaviors such as touching other
people inappropriately, and publicly disrobing, masturbating, and urinating
publicly–acts considered “illegal, immoral, ludicrous, or weird” in the outside
world. Notably, homosexual activity was practically universal, representing not
so much innate orientation or arrested development (as might have been imagined),
but simply environmental conditioning or lack of alternative means for

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