Online Program

Ethnic bias in eugenic sterilization practice: A quantitative analysis of 15,000 sterilization records from state institutions in California, 1921-1952

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Nicole Novak, PhD, MSc, Population Studies Center, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI
Kate O'Connor, Project Manager of the Eugenic Rubicon Project at the University of Michigan, Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI
Alexandra Stern, PhD, Department of History, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI
Between 1907 and 1937, thirty-two U.S. states passed eugenic sterilization laws that authorized state institutions for the feebleminded and mentally ill to sterilize residents who were determined to be unfit for reproduction.  Eugenic efforts to improve the reproductive fitness of the population were closely aligned with public health, and over 60,000 sterilizations were officially recorded nationwide.  California led the nation in sterilization practice with approximately 20,000 sterilizations.  We analyze new individual-level data to create a detailed demographic portrait of 15,000 individuals recommended for sterilization in nine state homes and hospitals across California.  We link sterilization data to census microdata (1920-1940) on general institution populations to formally compare rates of sterilization by ethnicity.  We compare patterns in sterilization over time, across institutions, and by ethnicity (Spanish surname), age, gender and nationality to reveal social biases in defining and identifying the “unfit”.  For example, sterilized individuals of Hispanic origin (Spanish surname) were were more than twice as likely to be flagged for sexual delinquency and three times as likely to be identified as petty criminals, both of which were considered heritable characteristics that could justify sterilization.  Hispanic residents were also sterilized at higher levels of IQ and at younger ages than non-Hispanic residents.  Medical and public health professionals used logics of prevention and cost reduction to justify sterilizing individuals who were stereotyped as over-fertile and criminally inclined.  We discuss the implications of these findings for contemporary conversations about reproduction, genetics, racial/ethnic bias in public health practice, and the vulnerability of institutional populations.

Learning Areas:

Diversity and culture
Ethics, professional and legal requirements

Learning Objectives:
Describe the historic relationship between eugenic sterilization and public health. Describe ethnic disparity in eugenic sterilization in California. Discuss the logic used to justify sterilization.

Keyword(s): Vulnerable Populations, Latinos

Presenting author's disclosure statement:

Qualified on the content I am responsible for because: I have conducted the analysis as part of my training in epidemiologic and demographic methods at the University of Michigan. Furthermore, the project relates to my broader interests in upstream influences on the health of Latinos in the United States.
Any relevant financial relationships? No

I agree to comply with the American Public Health Association Conflict of Interest and Commercial Support Guidelines, and to disclose to the participants any off-label or experimental uses of a commercial product or service discussed in my presentation.