While thirty-three states passed laws authorizing sterilization, only seven have recognized their actions regarding forced sterilizations through public apologies. Out of those seven states, only two have issued plans for reparation through the form of monetary compensation for the survivors. Monetary compensation is a form of redress for victims of forced sterilization, but educational reform reaches a larger population, while honouring the victims by sharing their stories. Educational projects surrounding the history of eugenics have appeared throughout Europe, Canada, and the U.S., but sadly, many people are still unfamiliar with this aspect of the past.
Forced Sterilization, Compensation, and Redress
Thirty-three states passed laws authorizing sterilization of criminals, the mentally ill, and the feeble minded, yet only seven have recognized their actions. Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oregon, and Indiana all acknowledged their wrongs regarding forced sterilization, but only two states have issued plans for reparation through the form of monetary compensation for the survivors. While monetary compensation is a form of redress for victims of forced sterilization, many people in those states will not qualify for these reparations because their cases did not go through the Eugenics Board, but rather were approved for sterilization procedures by judges or other social services.
Virginia and North Carolina have implemented monetary compensation to redress the state’s eugenic past. North Carolina was the first to compensate its victims, setting aside $50,000 per individual in 2013 and Virginia followed, agreeing to give each surviving victim $25,000 in 2015. However, only 200 survivors were approved for compensation in North Carolina and a mere 12 were approved in Virginia. At the federal level, Senate Bill 1698, introduced in June 2015, will ensure that victims of eugenics programs like the one in North Carolina aren’t penalized by being excluded from Federal benefits because they are receiving restitution.
These compensation initiatives are significant, both for the people receiving them and for those who learn about the history of eugenics because of them. However, educational reform is a form of redress that reaches a larger and more open population, and moves toward achieving some of the goals of eugenic redress.
California’s Senate Resolution No. 20, passed in 2003, urges every citizen of the state to become familiar with the history of the eugenics movement, in the hope that a more educated and tolerant populace will reject any similar abhorrent pseudoscientific movement should it arise in the future. Yet, the resolution presents no outline for how this might become a reality. In order to most effectively carry out this suggestion, California – and all states – should focus on educating young adults about the disturbing history and legacy of eugenics. States should change history textbook standards and the educational code to include curricula on sterilization and eugenics in public high schools.
The curricula surrounding education of eugenics should draw upon archival materials and qualitative interviews. Despite similar historical origins of each eugenic program around the world, many countries have diverged in the extent to which lessons about this historical injustice are transmitted (or not transmitted) to the wider public.
The 2012 FAIR Act
The 2012 FAIR Education Act shows that states can directly change public school curricula to create more inclusive education. This California law establishes a precedent for teaching tolerance by amending the California Education Code to require the inclusion of contributions of persons with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in educational textbooks and the social studies curricula in California public schools. States can use the same framework to implement educational reform. Teaching the history of eugenics through this lens and incorporating the FAIR Education Act in more states would prove rewarding for redressing the past actions of each state.
Other educational projects have also aimed at bringing to light the obscured history of eugenics around the world. New York University and University College London have both launched initiatives to teach the history of eugenics publicly. Students and faculty at UCL hosted an event to encourage their institution to face up to its complicity in constructing unjust racial hierarchy through its support of Francis Galton’s research on eugenics. At NYU, the exhibit, Haunted Files: The Eugenics Record Office, opened at the university’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute. At both universities, these initiatives acknowledge that advances in modern genetic technologies make education about the history of eugenics increasingly important.
The NYU exhibit brings to life the physical offices and paper archives of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, the center of the eugenics movement in the United States between 1910 and 1939. The Cold Spring Harbor based eugenics archive and the Edmonton based eugenics archive constitute the most developed effort at public online education about eugenics. The Edmonton-based Living Archives Project on Eugenics in Western Canada brings together archival resources and personal testimony through interviews and stories of people whose voices were typically silenced and devalued. The project reflects the collaborative work of scholars, sterilization survivors, students, and university and community partners in challenging eugenics in a balanced and informative way.
Other European countries have issued educational redress for sterilization victims. In the early 1990s, Scandinavian governments funded a series of essays to dig deeper into their eugenic past in order to publicly educate on this history. The essays on Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland sterilization policy revealed large numbers of sterilization of those deemed mentally defective or otherwise handicapped under new social democratic governments.
Two public events have been co-organized by the Center for Genetics and Society - Future Past: Disability, Eugenics, and Brave New Worlds in 2013 and Eugenics in California: A Legacy of the Past? in 2012. The motivations behind these efforts included concerns about misuses of new and emerging genetic technologies. In 2015, a group of University of Alberta students formed Eugenics Ed, a group that lobbies the Province of Alberta for the addition of eugenics into the high school social studies curriculum. Eugenics Ed started the online petition in order to initiate more awareness about the history of eugenics in Canada starting with Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act of 1928. The Living Archives in Canada has also sponsored Alberta Eugenics Awareness Weeks in 2011, 2012, and 2013, each consisting of about 10 days of public and academic events.
Many educational institutions still avoid discussing the history of eugenics, and many are reluctant to confront their own complicity in the abuses they facilitated. Studying eugenics in the twentieth century is important not just as a matter of learning history, but as part of what we need to know in order to thoughtfully consider how progress and advancement should occur in the future.
Broberg, G., & Roll-Hansen, N. (2005). Eugenics and the welfare state. Michigan State University Press.
Davis, G. (2003, March 11). Governor Davis makes statement on eugenics . Available from http://www.csus.edu/cshpe/eugenics/docs/davis_release.pdf
Facing History and Ourselves. (2002). Race and membership in American history: The eugenics movement . Available from from https://www.facinghistory.org/sites/ default/files/publications/Race_Membership.pdf
Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful Education Act, S. 48, 2011 Leg. (Cal. 2010). Available from http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/11-12/bill/sen/ sb_0001-0050/sb_48_bill_20110714_chaptered.html
Lockyer, B. (2003, March 11). [Letter to Dede Alpert]. Available from http://www.csus.edu/cshpe/eugenics/docs/lockyer_letter.pdf
Senate Resolution No. 20, 2003 Leg., Reg. Sess. (Cal. 2003). Retrieved from http://www.csus.edu/cshpe/eugenics/docs/senate_resolution_20.pdf
The Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta, 1928. Available from www.ourfutureourpast.ca/law/page.aspx?id=2906151.
Stern, A. M. (2005). Eugenic Nation . Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.