Eugenic laws: Americans and Hoosiers led the way

It could never happen here, right? I would never fall in line and do what they did, right? So goes the thinking about the horrors that arose from Nazi Germany.

Experiments such as the Stanford prison experiment or the Milgram experiment have proven these assumptions about human behavior wrong. It is human nature to think that one would somehow act differently, but in fact, we are all prone to carrying out the same horrors that the Nazis did in World War II.

We are appalled by the attempt in Nazi Germany to build a master race. But the practice of eugenics and the field actually developed elsewhere. Nazi eugenics evolved from American eugenics. Yes, Americans paved the way, being among the first to look for ways to make the gene stock “better”.

And Indiana had the dubious distinction of leading the charge. In 1905, Indiana passed a law that restricted the rights of individuals to marry whom scientists deemed to be inferior stock. In 1907, Indiana passed the first law in the world that allowed for involuntary sterilization. The goal outlined in the law was anything but laudable: “to prevent procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles, and rapists.” Thirty states followed suit. (At least Indiana didn’t have the distinction of performing the most sterilizations. That honor goes to California.)

In 1927, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled against the law. The law was revised and stayed on the books until 1974. 1974. For over 45 years, Hoosiers allowed thousands of other Hoosiers to be involuntarily sterilized.

Making this more real is a photo I saw at CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute, Indiana. The black and white photo shows a government field worker talking with a family who was standing on the porch of their log cabin in Putnam County. The caption explains that the government worker was sent to determine if the family was fit for breeding.

How was this law, and others like it, born out of eugenics allowed to survived several decades after the Nazis had been condemned and put on trial for the horrors that they did to others in the name of eugenics?


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