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Our State's Eugenic Past, Part One
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
August 2019


WHEREAS, heredity plays a most important part in the transmission of crime, insanity, idiocy, and imbecility, and our institutions for degenerates are overcrowded on account of the lack of adequate means of checking the ever-increasing numbers of this class; and whereas, there is now no provision in law authorizing an operation for the sterilization of defective persons, this act shall take effect and be in force from and after its passage and approval.

With that “emergency” language, North Dakota became one of the first states in the nation to authorize forced sterilizations.

Eugenics is the erroneous idea that humans and society can be made better by encouraging birth of individuals with “good” genes and preventing the conception of persons with “bad”genes. It was the rage in scientific, medical, and legal circles from the beginning of the Twentieth Century to the end of World War II, though it manifests itself in other ways even today. North Dakota embraced eugenics early, becoming among the first states to adopt laws expressly for the purpose of eugenics, including the sterilization law.

Purposely destroying a normal functioning healthy organ so as to prevent future conception is always wrong, no matter what the reason and even if done with consent. Forced or coerced eugenic sterilization by the state is triply wrong because it (1) violates the dignity of the individual by not obtaining consent and (2) furthers a eugenic purpose. Pope Pius XI made the latter clear in 1930 with his encyclical Casti Connubii.

Many North Dakotans, however, enthusiastically embraced eugenic sterilization in the last century. In the early weeks of the 1913 legislative session, Dr. E.P. Quain gave a lecture promoting eugenics, including the “sterilization of all defectives” by the state who were considered “incurable mentally, morally, or physically, and therefore unfit for procreation.” Quain was a well-respected surgeon in the state and one of the founders the Q & R Clinic (now Sanford) and the Bismarck Hospital (also now part of Sanford). The legislature overwhelming passed the new law a few months later. Only four senators opposed its final passage.

Under the law if an administrator of the state hospital, the “state school for the feeble-minded” in Grafton, the reform school, or the state prison believed that procreation by a resident or patient would “likely . . . result in defective or feeble-minded children with criminal tendencies” not “desirable or beneficial to the community,” the person could be sterilized. In addition, all states attorneys were obligated to refer for possible sterilization the names of any felons who had two or more prior convictions. To broaden the reach of the law, another statute stated that a person did not have to be "properly classified" as “feeble minded" to be considered for sterilization. It was enough if the person was thought to be “offensive to the public peace or to good morals.” Not stopping there, the 1915 legislature added those persons "whose defects prevent them from receiving proper training in the public schools.” Epileptics were added in 1927.

The law had no procedure for a hearing from the impacted individual, the family, judicial review, or appeal.

Parents were, however, sometimes consulted in order to bypass the requirements of the law. In 1918, the superintendent of the facility in Grafton, Dr. A. R. T. Wylie, reported that the Grafton institution had not performed sterilizations “strictly under the law” because a member of his medical board opposed them “from moral standpoints.” Nevertheless, Wylie was able to conduct sterilizations on residents by getting consent from the parents. Later, the Grafton facility required sterilization before a resident could be discharged.

The superintendent of the state hospital at the time, Dr. William Hotchkiss, was a strong supporter of eugenic sterilization. He reported in 1918: “The statute is of inestimable eugenical value, because of its possibilities in eliminating defective hereditary influences.” He lamented, however, that he could not do more. “Since the law has been in effect we have sterilized thirty males and two females; but we have done much less than contemplated, because the lack of finance prevented the hiring of surgical nurses. We have eleven cases of females who are to be operated on when possible."

The law was revised in 1927 to allow an appeal process, but that did not hinder the state’s eugenic agenda. In fact, the number of forced sterilizations in the state skyrocketed in the 1930s and did not drop to their pre-1927 levels until the 1960s. We will visit that history and how Native Americans were subjected to forced sterilization in a future column.