Time to Stop Burying Our Eugenic Histories

Posted by Doug Pet October 14, 2010
Biopolitical Times
Cover from a 1934 film on the "secret" horrors of forced sterilization
Darlene Gabler, a 64-year-old woman from Alberta, Canada, is suing the provincial government for sterilizing her in 1961 without her knowledge or consent. Gabler is one of over 2,800 victims of the Alberta's Sexual Sterilization Act, which between 1928 and 1972 irreversibly sterilized children and teenagers (4,700 people in total) deemed "mentally defective" and/or "incapable of intelligent parenthood."

Up until the late 1970s, 30 U.S. states, two Canadian provinces and at least five other countries adopted programs similar to Alberta's, forcibly sterilizing tens of thousands deemed "reproductively unfit." Despite efforts by disability rights activists, historians of eugenics and others, public awareness and education around these atrocities has been seriously lacking in the decades since.

It is disturbing that Ms. Gabler's case and others like it seem to be among the few items "press-worthy" enough to shed light on the horrors of past compulsory sterilization practices in North America. On top of that, several local press outlets did miserable jobs covering Gabler's case, running simplistic, even stigmatizing headlines like "Sterile Woman sues Alberta gov." Unfortunately, media coverage of these cases usually concentrates on the details of individual legal cases, and fails to convey the deeper eugenic contexts behind them.

While justice for victims like Darlene Gabler is overridingly important, the wrongs of state-sponsored sterilization programs exceed the legal frameworks in which they are too often framed. Relegating these crimes to categories such as "assault" or "medical misconduct" runs the risk of boiling them down to quantifiable individual harms that can be righted in a courtroom. Meanwhile, the underlying iniquities of eugenics in general, and the fact that these ideologies persist in many forms today, remain unacknowledged.

Although the Alberta government offers some monetary reparations to its victims, placing it ahead of the curve in taking formal responsibility, a "put the past behind us" mind-set endures in other parts of the community. The University of Alberta still awards the prestigious MacEachran Scholarships in honor of the late Professor Emeritus John M. MacEachran, an outspoken eugenicist and chair of the Alberta Eugenics Board from 1929 to 1964. Public objections to this have been admirable but few [1, 2].

It is imperative that state and national governments, universities, and public voices alike more widely acknowledge past sterilization programs. The word "eugenics," when rarely mentioned in the media or in public education or discourse, is too often conveyed as something that happened a long time ago in a far-off place. Continuing to bury local histories of eugenic practices like forced sterilization will further obscure the thousands of victims who have yet to come forward as well as the memories of those who never had that chance. Silencing those voices also denies the rest of us the opportunity to remember our collective past, and could condemn us to repeat it.