Yale Study Shows U.S. Sterilization Movement More Prevalent than Believed at Time of Nazi Germany

Forced and voluntary sterilization in the United States was more closely allied to the policies of Nazi Germany than previously believed, a Yale study shows.

Forced and voluntary sterilization in the United States was more closely allied to the policies of Nazi Germany than previously believed, a Yale study shows.

The study by Andre Sofair, M.D., and Lauris Kaldjian, M.D., both assistant clinical professors at Yale School of Medicine, was based on a review of editorials in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association between 1930 and 1945.

“The comparative histories of the eugenical sterilization campaigns in the United States and Nazi Germany reveal important similarities of motivation, intent, and strategy,” they said in the study published Feb. 15 in the Annals of Internal Medicine. “The comparison also reveals differences that explain why support for eugenical sterilization in the United States gradually weakened.”

Eugenics describes the process of supposedly strengthening the human race through selective breeding. The Nazis ordered forced sterilization of individuals suffering from diseases thought to be hereditary, among them schizophrenia, epilepsy, alcoholism, manic depression, hereditary deafness or blindness, severe hereditary physical deformity, Huntington’s chorea and congenital feeblemindedness.

Under Nazi rule, 360,000 to 375,000 people were sterilized.

Sofair and Kaldjian said the eugenics movement in Germany was influenced by economic crisis, radical nationalism, Hitler’s totalitarianism, the medical profession’s willing participation and the attraction to Nazism for financial and ideological reasons.

The eugenics movement in the United States was fueled by a belief in scientific management and rational planning, the pressures of economic instability, and the arrival of the progressive era, they said.

“A combination of public unease, Roman Catholic opposition, federal democracy, judicial review, and critical scrutiny by the medical profession reversed the momentum of the eugenics movement (in the U.S.) and led to the conclusion that eugenical sterilization should be voluntary,” Sofair and Kaldjian said in the article.

The first sterilization law in the United States was passed in Indiana in 1907. By 1944, 30 states with sterilization laws had reported a total of more than 40,000 eugenical sterilizations with those sterilized reported as insane or feebleminded.

“In the pre-Nazi period, German eugenicists expressed admiration for American leadership in instituting sterilization programs and communicated with their American colleagues about strategies,” Sofair and Kaldjian said. “Despite waning scientific and public support and the history of the human rights abuses of Nazi Germany, state-sponsored sterilizations in the U.S. continued long after the war, totaling approximately 22,000 in 27 states between 1943-63.”

The study was funded by a grant from the Center for Advanced Studies of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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