Psychology has a fascinating and rich history, filled with amazing advances. But it wasn’t all progress. Psychology has a painful past — with many victims.
One of the most devastating times in psychology was a movement called eugenics, a name coined by Sir Francis Galton in 1883. The goal of eugenics was to improve the genetic composition of the population: to encourage healthy, smart individuals to reproduce (called positive eugenics) and to discourage the poor, who were considered unintelligent and unfit, from reproducing (negative eugenics).
One of the main methods to discourage reproduction was through sterilization. While it seems ludicrous now, many people, both abroad and in the U.S., agreed with the principles of eugenics.
In fact, state governments soon started establishing sterilization laws. In 1907, Indiana was the first state to legalize sterilization.
According to scientist Stephen Jay Gould in Natural History:
“Sterilization could be imposed upon those judged insane, idiotic, imbecilic, or moronic, and upon convicted rapists or criminals when recommended by a board of experts.”
While sterilization laws were in place in many states, they weren’t really used. According to Harry H. Laughlin, director of the Eugenics Record Office and a major player in the eugenics movement, that was because the laws were either too confusing or too poorly written to be constitutional.
So in 1922, he published a model sterilization act, which later became the model for many states.
By the 1930s, over 30 states had sterilization laws. Some states even expanded the definition to include blindness, deafness, drug addiction and alcoholism.
Buck v. Bell
In 1924, Virginia passed its sterilization law based on Laughlin’s model. In 1927, Carrie Buck was the first person to be sterilized in the state under the new law, which included sterilizing anyone who was feeble-minded, an imbecile or epileptic. The Supreme Court upheld the decision in Buck v. Bell, validating sterilization and increasing sterilizations throughout the country.
Carrie’s mother, Emma Buck, was deemed “feebleminded” and “sexually promiscuous,” and involuntarily institutionalized at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded in Lynchburg, Virginia. Then 17 years old, Carrie, believed to have inherited these traits, was committed to the same asylum after giving birth to an illegitimate daughter, Vivian.
When Vivian was examined at six months old, experts concluded that she was “below the average.” According to a social worker, “there is a look about it that is not quite normal.” (Interestingly, this social worker would later deny that she diagnosed Vivian as feebleminded or even examined her.)
When the case went to the Supreme Court, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:
“It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
But the definitions of imbecile and feebleminded were essentially arbitrary and meaningless. Also, relevant information was left out of Carrie’s trial. For starters, Carrie had made the honor roll (so did her daughter, Vivian). So the feebleminded accusation wasn’t even accurate (though, again, these terms were problematic to begin with).
Even more important, Carrie was raped by a relative of her foster family. It was likely that she was institutionalized because of the shame this would bring to the family (many unwed mothers were institutionalized during this time).
The entire case was a conspiracy.
“Recent scholarship has shown that Carrie Buck’s sterilization was based on a false “diagnosis” and her defense lawyer conspired with the lawyer for the Virginia Colony to guarantee that the sterilization law would be upheld in court.”
After Carrie was sterilized, she was released from the institution. Carrie was married twice, and lived until her 70s, helping to take care of others.
Carrie’s younger sister, who was told that she was going in for appendicitis surgery, was also sterilized. She didn’t find out until she was in her late 60s.
Since Carrie’s case, about 65,000 Americans with mental illness or developmental disabilities have been sterilized. Involuntary sterilizations continued until the 1970s.
Germany used language from Laughlin’s law for their sterilizations.
In 1938, Joseph S. DeJarnette, director of Western State Hospital in Virginia, expressed his disappointment that American numbers lagged behind Germany’s:
“Germany in six years has sterilized about 80,000 of her unfit while the United States with approximately twice the population has only sterilized about 27,869 to January 1, 1938 in the past 20 years… The fact that there are 12,000,000 defectives in the US should arouse our best endeavors to push this procedure to the maximum.”