Forced Sterilisation: Past and Present
Posted by Matthew McCusker on 20 August 2013
On 30th January 1933 Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany.
The Nazi eugenic programme, the foundations of which had already been set out in Mein Kampf, was put into practice almost immediately. The regime's first eugenic action was the 'Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring' which was signed by Hitler in July 1933. This law introduced forced sterilisation for a wide range of mental and physical disabilities.
The law led to the creation of over two hundred ‘eugenic courts’ which determined whether or not a given patient should be sterilised. Patients who suffered from the following conditions (many of which are not in fact genetic) were to be subjected to sterilisation; ‘Congenital Mental Deficiency’, ‘Schizophrenia’, ‘Manic-Depressive Insanity’, ‘Hereditary Epilepsy’, ‘Hereditary Chorea’, ‘Hereditary Blindness’, ‘Hereditary Deafness’, ‘any severe hereditary deformity’ and ‘severe alcoholism’. It was later extended to other groups considered 'asocial' including prostitutes, homosexuals, Gypsies and Jews. By the fall of the regime in 1945 over 400,000 people had been sterilised.
As we have already seen sterilisation was very commonly advocated during the first half of the twentieth century as the eugenic ideology gained ground. The United States of America was at the forefront of this movement but by the 1920s sterilisation had come to be discussed across Germany. A good example is a meeting of the German Psychiatric Association in September 1925 at which the psychiatrist Robert Gaupp drew attention to the ‘achievements’ of sterilisation programmes implemented in America. Gaupp reiterated all the typical fears of the eugenicists, for example that ‘the less valuable are reproducing more rapidly than the more valuable.’ He told his audience that the time had come to remove ‘the burden of the parasites.’
In 1931 Valentin Faltlhauser, who was to be at the forefront of the Nazi euthanasia programme, identified three streams of thought concerning sterilisation. The first group opposed sterilisation on ethical grounds; the second were unconvinced by the arguments advocating it and the third were those who were convinced that many mental disorders were hereditary and that sterilisation was the way to eliminate these diseases. He formed this judgment after listening to a lengthy debate at the twenty-fifth annual conference of Bavarian psychiatrists in July 1931. The introduction of the 'Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring' was not then regarded with much concern by a large proportion of the German population. The propaganda poster to the left shows how the regime, accurately, presented its measures as in the mainstream of international eugenic practice. The only institution to speak out clearly against sterilisation was the Catholic Church. A few years earlier, on 31st December 1930, Pope Pius XI had reminded Catholics of numerous central moral truths that were being widely ignored or denied. Of sterilisation he said:
"For there are some who, oversolicitous for the cause of eugenics ... wish to prevent from marrying all those whom, even though naturally fit for marriage, they consider, according to the norms and conjectures of their investigations, would, through hereditary transmission, bring forth defective offspring. And more, wish to legislate to deprive these of that natural faculty by medical action despite their unwillingness... against every right and good they wish the civil authority to abrogate to itself a power over a faculty which it never had and can never legitimately possess...
Public magistrates have no direct power over the bodies of their subjects; therefore, where no crime has taken place and there is no cause present for grave punishment, they can never directly harm, or tamper with the integrity of the body, either for the reasons of eugenics or for any other reason..."
Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii
The Nazis' campaign of sterilisation was mirrored in other countries, particular in the United States and Sweden. In Australia and many Latin American countries it was used against native populations such as Australian aborigines and Quecha Indians. In China it is thought to be widespread today as a means of enforcing the one-child policy. In the United Kingdom, as in many other countries, forced sterilisation can occur by order of a judge. Indeed this power was used just a few days ago by Mrs Justice Eleanor King who ordered that doctors could go ahead with the sterilisation of a man named only as DE. DE does not have the capacity to give consent to the operation. The mental health charity MENCAP has claimed that forced sterilisation of the disabled in hospitals was common in the 1960s and continued into the 1980s.
Here is a list of countries where sterilisation was explicitly legal or tolerated by the state during the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. Most of these countries either still permit forced sterilisation or have done so until very recent times. This is not an exhaustive list; there may be many other countries that could be added to it.
- Czech Republic (and in former Czechoslovakia)
- Dominican Republic
- Puerto Rico
- Slovakia (and in former Czechoslovakia)
- South Africa
- United Kingdom
- United States of America
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