Voluntary and Involuntary Sterilization

The Legal Precedents
  • Michael D. Bayles
Part of the The Hastings Center Series in Ethics book series (HCSE)


Involuntary sterilization of the mentally incompetent has been seriously considered or practiced in the United States since Indiana adopted the first eugenic-sterilization statute in 1907. However, the practice did not become widespread until the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of such statutes in 1927. The Court held that a Virginia statute did not violate the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s often-quoted words:

We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes…. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.1


Rear Child Competent Parent Legal Precedent Selective Abortion Fourteenth Amendment 
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  1. 7.
    D. D. Raphael, ed., Political Theory and the Rights of Man (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967), p. 145, Article 16(1).Google Scholar
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    G. S. Neuwirth; P. A. Hersler; & K. S. Goldrich, “Capacity, Competence, Consent: Voluntary Sterilization of the Mentally Retarded,” Columbia Human Rights Law Review 6 (1975): 451.Google Scholar
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    J. E. Davis, “Birth Control by Sterilization” in Claude A. Frazier, ed., Is It Moral to Modify Man? (Springfield, Ill.: Charles C Thomas, 1973), pp. 75–76.Google Scholar
  4. 20.
    W. Kempton, “Sexual Rights and Responsibilities of the Retarded Person,” in The Social Welfare Forum, 1976, National Conference on Social Welfare (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977), pp. 217–218.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Hastings Center 1981

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael D. Bayles
    • 1
  1. 1.Westminster Institute for Ethics and Human ValuesWestminster CollegeLondonCanada

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