2021 Eugenics Symposium


Slide 1

Thanks so much. Hi everyone, to start off, there is a print version of my talk available on my website, kateeoconnor.com/talks if you’d like to follow along there. Today I’m going to present on another border state that we study in the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab: Michigan. 

Slide 2 

This slide is titled sterilizations in Michigan and has some key points that I’ll be going through. 

A very brief overview of the history of eugenics in Michigan. In 1897, Michigan had been the first state to propose a eugenic sterilization law. This bill primarily focused on patients in mental health hospitals and criminals, especially those convicted of sexual crimes. Under his law, men would be castrated and women would have radical hysterectomies.  Opponents of the law claimed it would be used against political opponents and the bill quickly lost steam and was abandoned.

A reworked bill was passed in 1913, making Michigan the seventh state to enact a eugenic sterilization law. This law was only applicable to inmates in state institutions whose stay was being subsidized by taxpayers. Only one person was sterilized under the 1913 law before it was challenged and overturned by the Michigan State Supreme Court. A new law passed in 1923 was essentially the 1913 law expanded to include individuals outside of institutions.

Once the Supreme Court of the United States declared eugenic sterilizations legal in Buck v. Bell, sterilizations in Michigan and the United States increased substantially. Michigan passed its final sterilization law entitled “An Act to Prevent the Procreation of Feeble-minded, Insane and Epileptic Persons, Moral Degenerates, and Sexual Perverts” in 1929. The law instructed the courts, superintendents, and other welfare and medical professionals to apply these labels as liberally as possible in order to prevent the procreation and increase of individuals who are or may become “a menace to society or wards of the state.” 

Unlike most other states, Michigan did not have a central authorizing body for sterilizations. Instead, sterilizations were ordered by the County Probate Judge or conducted at the discretion of the superintendent or other medical heads of individual institutions. The vast majority of the county ordered sterilization records have been destroyed as have most medical records. The approximately 1,000 sterilization records that survive have done so because they were sent to the State Board of Welfare for authorization, likely as a legal precaution if family members were unable or unwilling to give consent, and thus were preserved as administrative files. 

 The public statistics that are occasionally listed about Michigan’s eugenic sterilization program, as listed in this slide, come from the Human Betterment Foundation’s records which show that 3,786 people were sterilized in Michigan’s state hospitals, homes for the feebleminded, and other public institutions. The Foundation’s records show that 74% of those sterilized were women and that 76% of patients were listed as feebleminded – the vast majority of sterilized patients came from the Michigan Home for the Feebleminded at Lapeer. 

Slide 3

This slide has a picture from the Detroit Free Press from April 20, 1930 that says “Ellis Island Problems Moved to the Detroit Border” along with a quote that I’ll read below. 

Before going deeper into the sterilization records, I want to briefly give an overview of Michigan as a borderland state. Michigan had a xenophobic and racial bias that largely targeted African American Native Americans, and Southern and Eastern European migrants. Given the relatively low number of non-white people in Michigan in the 1930s and 40s, most public attention was focused on undesirable European migrants. 

After the immigration restrictions of the 1920s, the Windsor/Detroit border became a major site of unauthorized migration. Unlike the Pacific Northwest and along the US/Mexico border, illegal migrants coming through Detroit were usually much more difficult to differentiate based solely on physical appearance than other targeted racial and ethnic groups. As immigration historian Ashley Johnson Bavery has demonstrated, it was much easier for Southern and Eastern European migrants to “pass” for the northern and western Europeans who were welcomed into the country, than it was for migrants coming from outside of Europe. In fact, many smugglers provided would-be illegal migrants with American and Western European clothing and basic English skills in order to increase their chances of crossing into the United States undetected.

This anxiety is reflected in newspaper headlines, such as this one from the Detroit Free Press that says “Ellis Island problems Moved to Detroit Border” along with a quote from the story by an Assistant US District attorney that says “We have been faced with new problems and have discovered new and astounding facts about the social and economic situation [of migrants]. For instance, a survey in 1927, six years after the passage of the 1921 Immigration Act showed more than 111,300 aliens confined in penal institutions, insane asylums, and hospitals. All in all, better than 70 per cent of the inmates of all penal institutions are either aliens or one generation removed.” 

With that in mind, I’m going to present some early numbers. These numbers come from the 437 records analyzed so far in Michigan, primarily from the late 1920s through early 1930s.

Slide 4

This slide has a horizontal bar graph titled “Ethnicity of Patients Recommended for sterilization” The most common ethnicity was English with 139 patients, German with 55 patients, Irish with 41 patients, Black and Polish with 30 patients each, Dutch with 27 patients, Scottish with 20 patients, and Swedish and Native American with 9 patients each. 

For these statistics, patients were coded by the primary race or ethnicity as indicated in the family or personal history section of their sterilization file. If the patient had a father of one ethnicity and a mother of another, the patient was coded as the father’s ethnicity. In the cases where no race was indicated or simply listed as “mixed race”, the patient was coded for ethnicity by their surname. For married women, their maiden surname was used. 

Slide 5

When focusing on only the feebleminded institution, Lapeer, the numbers become even more stark. Lapeer residents eligible for parole and sterilization were usually under the age of 25, native-born, and categorized as moron or borderline level intelligence. 

On the slide there is a vertical bar graph titled Ethnicity of Patients Recommended for Sterilizations at Lapeer by Percent. English and Black patients each accounted for 19% of Lapeer’s patients, Irish was 15%, Polish and German were each 13%, Native American was 5%, French and Dutch were 4% and all others total were 8%. 

Slide 6 

The next slide is titled Race in Context and the Records and has the stats and quotes that I cite below. 

To put Lapeer’s numbers into even starker context, the entire Black population in Michigan in the 1930s and 40s was 3-4% of the state. 19% of those sterilized at Lapeer were Black. 

The Native American population was less than 1% but comprised 5% of sterilization recommendations.

An interesting note is that for all the institutions, less than .1% of patients were immigrants, despite between 15% and 20% of Michiganders being of foreign birth during the same time period. This is because immigrants were usually deported rather than institutionalized. 

The records themselves reflect this pattern of considering people of color and people of Eastern and Southern European ancestry as inferior to Northern and Western Europeans. Here are some quotes that I’ve pulled out of the records. 

In the 1931 file of a 17 year old Black female, it says “According to the present test results, she classifies as a borderline or high moron, but since she is colored, it is generally permissible to add about 10 points to her IQ which would classify her as dull normal or borderline.” 

1940, a 21 year old Native American woman was described as having “borderline intelligence and remarkably well-poised in social situations, for an Indian.”

In the early 1930s, two Polish-American sisters were sterilized and their charts speak negatively of their Polish heritage. They are both described as unattractive and have “heavy stolid Polish facies.” 

However, even white Americans who had been in the country for several generations could be the product of poor breeding. For example, in 1937, the patient file of an adult man described his heritage as follows: “Of Mixed racial descent (mostly English). A study of approximately 100 members of the family through the past four generations reveals an amazing extent of mental deficiency, delinquency, crime and public dependency. The patient has been married three times and had legitimate children as well as illegitimate children, several of whom are mentally deficient. The patient’s maternal grandfather is insane, as was his father before him and the latter’s brother. In the entire network there are many divorces, separations, remarriages, as well as cohabitation without legal sanction.”

Slide 7 

Transitioning into the final part of our panel, I want to touch briefly on ethical issues related to our research, first in Michigan and then we’ll expand it to all of the states. 

In Michigan, privacy laws related to mental health records are in effect indefinitely. This means that the records I’m working with will never become public, unlike in other states. It also means that how we’re able to present data becomes limited. Small categories require consolidation so that patients can remain unidentifiable. This in turn means that some nuance in the data is inevitably lost. 

It also makes working with qualitative data more difficult. In the lab, we have an ethic of not reducing people to numbers but in states with more restrictive laws, this becomes trickier.

Finally, in all of the states to some degree, we have missing data. Even California, which arguably has the most complete sterilization data, we only have records from public institutions. In Michigan, I have only about a quarter of the patients who were sterilized with public funds. This means that huge numbers of individuals who were robbed of their ability to reproduce have been erased. 

Now, I’ll turn it over to Nicole and Natalie. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.