From Word to Practice: Eugenic Language in Sterilization Legislation in North America (1905-1945)

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Kersten, Luke; Davis, Laura
conference paper description
Between 1905 and 1945, 31 states in the Untied States and 2 provinces in Canada enacted sterilization legislation. Over 70 statutes and amendments were enacted to guide, oversee and regulate sterilization practice, while over 24 distinct conditions were offered as grounds for sterilization. Although excellent legal, historical, and philosophical scholarship has investigated the motivations, causes and consequences of this legislation (Paul, 1995; Dowbiggin, 1997; Lombardo, 2008), little work has been done to explicitly systematic analyse the language used in sterilization legislation. This brief study attempts to fill some of the gap by attending to a number of questions that arise in the context of sterilization legislation. Five questions are addressed: Are there any patterns to the eugenic language in sterilization legislation? Does the eugenic sterilization language reflect what is found on other eugenic lists? What can sterilization language tell us about the mechanics of eugenics? What can sterilization legislation reveal about the role of feeble-mindedness or mental deficiency in eugenic history? And finally, what might sterilization language tell us about eugenic thought more generally? In answering these questions, we look to add one more piece to the puzzle that is eugenic history in North America.