Forced sterilization of persons with disabilities in Washington state

A crime against motherhood”:  A Mother’s Day op-ed in the L.A. Times written by the daughter of a Washington State University Librarian who was involuntarily sterilized immediately after she gave birth to her first baby in 1972 because the doctor believed “There are too many colored babies already.”

May 2012 Calendar
Mother’s Day Special

During the twentieth century, many States enacted laws that authorized involuntary sterilization. These laws were a part of the eugenics movement in America that sought to improve the American population by limiting the ability of certain people to reproduce.

Washington State was the second state to enact a sterilization law on March 22, 1909. This law permitted sterilization of any person “adjudged guilty of carnal abuse of a female person under the age of ten years, or of rape, or …adjudged to be a habitual criminal.”

The Washington Supreme Court held this law to be constitutional. State v. Feilen, 70 Wash. 65 (1912). The 1909 law is still on the books, RCW 9.92.100. Since its enactment, very few Washington citizens were sterilized under the 1909 law.

The second wave of involuntary sterilization legislation in Washington State and America in general focused on restriction of the reproduction of unproductive members of society. Eugenicists believed that moral qualities were inheritable, so society sought to prevent procreation by those with undesirable traits.

In 1921, Washington State enacted a subsequent sterilization law that targeted patients at psychiatric institutions as well as prison inmates, including “all feebleminded, insane, epileptic, habitual criminals, moral degenerates and sexual perverts.” The sterilization procedures were intended to improve the inpatient or inmate’s physical and mental condition and to protect society from the inpatient or inmate’s offspring that eugenicist believed would either be a social menace or ward of the state. The superintendent of psychiatric institutions or prisons would propose and a review board would approve the sterilization of patients and inmates.

The Washington Supreme Court held the 1921 law was unconstitutional in In re Hendrickson, 12 Wash. 2d 600, 612 (1942). The Court found the law failed to provide patients a meaningful way to file appeals of the institutional board’s decision. Interestingly, the Court accepted sterilizations based on eugenic principles as a valid practice, but simply stated due process was required if the state wanted to eugenically sterilize patients.

Joanne Woiak, PhD with the University of Washington Disability Studies Program has been researching Washington sterilization records which demonstrate the law was applied disproportionally to women and persons with mental disabilities. The vast majority of the victims, 501 of 695, were women. People with mental disabilities and mental deficiencies constituted the majority of people sterilized, including 499 women and 180 men. Historians believe that many more were likely sterilized than the records reflect.

Washington State has never offered an official apology to those who were sterilized under state law. This apology would perhaps be premature as the 1909 sterilization law is still valid.

Approximately 33 other states had involuntary sterilizations laws during the same period as Washington’s laws. Beginning in 2002, seven states officially apologized to victims of state involuntary sterilization laws. These states are:

• Virginia—Governor Mark Warner, March 2, 2002

• Oregon—Governor John Kitzhaber, Dec. 2, 2002

• North Carolina—Governor Mike Easley, Dec. 12, 2002

• South Carolina—Governor Jim Hodges, Jan. 8. 2003

• California—Governor Gray Davis, March 11, 2003

• Indiana—State House & Senate, April 2007

• Georgia—State House & Senate, March 27, 2007

Hopefully, the recent wave of official state apologies to victims of involuntary sterilization will continue. North Carolina is exploring financial compensation to victims of its involuntary sterilizations. North Carolina Department of Administration, Governor’s Task Force to Determine the Method of Compensation for Victims of North Carolina’s Eugenics Board.