Between 1890 and 1920, the Progressive Era awoke one movement after another that advocated for better social, cultural, and political reforms that shook the core of American society. Even though part of the progressive movement was to create and enact new laws and policies, its primary purpose was to improve the morality and purification of Americans. One way to achieve that goal was to segregate those who were considered racially inferior to the Anglo-Saxon and Nordic races, meaning anyone who was not a descendant of a Northern European or English race.
Through the concept of eugenics, individuals in the Progressive Era began to segregate not only those who were inferior to the Anglo-Saxon and Nordic races, but also those who possessed undesirable characteristics. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines eugenics as “a science that tries to improve the human race by controlling which people become parents” and as “a science that deals with the improvement (as by control of human mating) of hereditary qualities of a race or breed.” At this time, medical professionals wrote articles stating that certain genes and traits were passed down from father and mother to their children. In particular, doctors, such as Harry C. Sharp, argued that if certain individuals who possessed undesirable characteristics procreated, the future of society looked bleak. As a result, on March 9, 1907, Indiana Governor J. Frank Hanly signed and enacted the eugenic sterilization law. Part of the law reads:
AN ACT entitled an act to prevent procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists; providing that superintendents and boards of managers of institutions where such persons are confined shall have the authority and are empowered to appoint a committee of experts, consisting of two (2) physicians, to examine into the mental condition of such inmates.
As long as two physicians verified an inmate had a mental illness, the law states that the prison or state mental hospital was required by law to sterilize said inmate.
In 1921, the Indiana Supreme Court deemed the law unconstitutional, thus making it illegal to involuntarily sterilize anyone who was thought to be undesirable or unfit to procreate. However, in 1927, Indiana repealed the 1921 decision and modified the 1907 law to state that as long as the individual had thirty days’ notice and the ability to make an appeal if he or she desired, the State of Indiana could continue to sterilize incarcerated individuals. It was not until 1974 that Indiana outlawed all forms of involuntary sterilization. The exact number of individuals who were involuntarily sterilized is unknown. However, an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 people were sterilized between 1907 and 1974. Since the repealing of the 1907 eugenics law, the State of Indiana has sought to rectify this piece of historic legislation through formal apologies and enacting historical markers.
Even though the concept of eugenics or sterilization was not new in the early twentieth century, Indiana made history when it became the first state both in the United States and in the world to pass a law that involuntarily sterilized incarcerated individuals. This landmark legislation helped pave the way for other states and countries to pass similar laws and policies, including laws that led to the Holocaust and other genocides.
General Laws of Indiana, chapter 215, House Document 364. Accessed August 1, 2014.
Heale, M. J. Twentieth-Century America: Politics and Power in the United States 1900-2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Indiana Historic Bureau. “Historical Marker of the 1907 Indiana Eugenics Law.” Accessed August 1, 2014.
Indiana State Library. “Eugenics Materials.” Accessed August 1, 2014.
Indiana University-Purdue University. “Indiana Eugenics History and Legacy, 1907-2007.” Accessed August 1, 2014.
Lears, Jackson. Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920. NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.
The Plymouth Tribune. Volume 6, Number 23, 14 March 1907. Page 5. Accessed August 1, 2014. Indiana Digital Historic Newspaper Program.
Sharp, Harry C. “Vasectomy as a Means Preventing Procreation in Defectives.” Buck v Bell Documents. Paper 4. Accessed August 1, 2014.