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


I previously recounted how in 1913 North Dakota became one of the first states to adopt the eugenic policy of forced sterilization. Although it was enthusiastically embraced by state institutions’ administrators, the law was used only occasionally in its first years.

The original law had no procedure for hearing from the individual or his or her family. Nor did the law have an appeal process. The legislature changed that in 1927. The new process, however, only accelerated the practice. One possibility is that the administrators felt more confident about the process with the new law. Another possibility is that the arrival of the Great Depression, which started early in North Dakota, emboldened the state to prevent the birth of “undesirables” who would be a “burden” to the state.

In 1930, the superintendent of the state hospital boasted about the “large number of patients” selected for sterilization and how the hospital was sterilizing as “rapidly as we can . . .” In his 1932 report, he stated that the selection of patients for sterilization was now part of the daily medical routine and that “the results obtained are significant of the great value of the procedure.”

What “results” could he have seen? Neither male nor female sterilization medically affects mental illness. Was he projecting onto the patients his belief that the state was better off it could prevent offspring of “defectives?” Did he see what he wanted to see or what the state government wanted to see?

The state hospital did, in fact, make sterilization part of its regular routine. It’s official report for 1938 biennium shows it performed 81 sterilizations during the two-year period. This number comprised forty-one percent of all surgical procedures at the hospital.

Although initially the state hospital embraced forced sterilization more than the center in Grafton, the Grafton administration later became the chief eugenics promoter and practitioner in the state. In 1929, superintendent A. R. T. Wylie created a “social services department” to, among other things, research mental deficiency. In the early 1930s, Henrietta Safley became head of this department. Safley soon after conducted a “study” of the institution’s residents that purported to show that mental deficiency was inherited. She presented her study to the Governor and the legislature with an appeal for greater use of the sterilization law so as to prevent “offspring, who . . . probably would become a social menace or wards of the state.”. We now know that she left out of her report data that did not support her agenda.

The Grafton institution had sterilized only sixteen residents prior to 1932. It sterilized fifty-five more by June of 1934 and continued with zeal in the following years. By 1940, it had sterilized 478 residents. The superintendent at that time, John Lamont, called it “common-sense control of propagation.” He went so far as to compare it to the work of a farmer who “must prevent weed-propagation and low-grade stock or lose his farm."

It is commonly thought that with the discovery of the eugenic horrors of Nazi Germany, forced sterilizations fell out of favor in the U.S. That was true at the state hospital where sterilizations became practically non-existent after World War II. They continued at a steady pace, however, at the institution in Grafton. By the time the sterilization law repealed in 1965, the state had forcibly sterilized 1,049 of its residents. The institution at Grafton performed over sixty percent of them.

Sterilization without consent continued on the Indian reservations. During the 1960s and 1970s, by use of coercion and subterfuge, IHS officials sterilized thousands of Native American women without their consent. Eventually Congress took notice. One official investigation found that that just four IHS service regions sterilized 3,406 American Indian women without consent between 1973 and 1976. The investigations never looked at the reservations in North Dakota, but the practice is believed to have been widespread.


Where were the Catholics during this dark period of our state’s history? Catholics comprised about fifteen percent of the population when the law was enacted in 1913, but their numbers grew rapidly after that. At the height of the sterilization push, Catholics would have had sufficient numbers to publicly protest, if not repeal the law.

Eugenics still rears its ugly head in policies on abortion, immigration, welfare, “public charge” laws, end-of-life care, and “family planning.” Are we going to be silent again?