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Three Generations of Eugenics: Sterilizing California Prisoners

The early 20th century saw hundreds of thousands of so-called “defective” Americans forcibly sterilized in the name of “improving” the human race. In one of the darkest chapters in its history, the Supreme Court sanctioned the process in Buck v. Bell, declaring that “three generations of imbeciles is enough.” Some people would say three generations of imbeciles on the Court is enough; of course, I would never say that.

Not surprisingly, the people deemed “imbeciles” were nothing of the kind. They were simply the most vulnerable people in their communities.

Thankfully, we’ve learned our lessons, and nothing like that can ever happen again. Right? Wrong!

According to a shocking new report from the Center for Investigative Reporting, between 2006 and 2010, “doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sterilized nearly 150 female inmates” without the approval of top medical officials in Sacramento as state law requires.

The reason for these restrictions should be obvious: the possibility of coercion and manipulation.

According to the report, that’s what happened at the California Institution for Women and Valley State Prison for Women.

According to former inmates and prisoner advocates, prison medical staff targeted those they deemed most likely to re-offend.

Targeted prisoners were pressured to have tubal ligations. As one former inmate told the Center, “As soon as he found out that I had five kids, he suggested that I look into getting it done. ... He made me feel like a bad mother if I didn’t do it.”

While some of the medical staff justified the sterilizations as “empowering” inmates, this claim is belied by the fact that they never sought the required state approval. If the act is so noble, why hide it?

A more plausible explanation was offered by the man who performed many of the sterilizations, Dr. James Heinrich: He told the Center that the money spent on the surgeries was small “compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children.”

For those of us familiar with the history of forced sterilization, both in the U.S. and abroad, it’s déjà vu all over again. This violation of human dignity may have lacked the brutality of the Nazis’ attempts at so-called “racial hygiene,” but then again, what Chuck Colson once called America’s “apple pie eugenics” was just as efficient in its war against the weak as the Nazi efforts it inspired.

That’s right, inspired. As Edwin Black documented in his book The War Against the Weak, American “corporate philanthropies helped found and fund the Nazi eugenics of Hitler and Mengele.”

And despite the horrors of Nazi “racial hygiene,” “forced sterilizations of prisoners, the mentally ill and the poor were commonplace in California” and other states until the 1970s, when the practice was finally declared illegal.

Illegal, but apparently not eliminated. It could hardly be otherwise, because the same demonic worldview that fueled earlier efforts remains with us: one that views human dignity as a product of personal productivity. Throw in the anti-natalism, which views children as a burden, not a gift, and the stage is set for what happened in California’s prisons.

It’s the Church’s job to wage war on the demonic worldviews that make outrages like this possible. Three generations of eugenics is three too many.

BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at where you can read and search answers to common questions.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Publication date: July 15, 2013

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