Involuntary Sterilization and the Law

A Review of Court Cases in the United States
  • Ruth Macklin
  • Willard Gaylin
Part of the The Hastings Center Series in Ethics book series (HCSE)


The first attempt to pass a law mandating involuntary sterilization in the United States came in 1897, in a bill introduced in the Michigan legislature that failed to pass. This bill and those that were to follow in other states were based on the concept of eugenics. This term, meaning “good birth” was apparently coined in the 1880s by Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin. The notion of selective breeding is, of course, a very old one—Plato discusses it in The Republic. But this general philosophical idea took on new strength with the rise of social Darwinism at the end of the nineteenth century. Darwin’s scientific evidence concerning the “survival of the fittest” gave a new respectability to the idea of selective breeding, as well as to the notion of weeding out the “unfit.” The English philosopher Herbert Spencer went so far as to cite social Darwinism in defense of sweatshops, child labor, and starvation, while at the same time decrying public education, health care, and other social services that interfered with the elimination of those he regarded as unfit.


Good Interest Juvenile Court Supreme Court Decision United States Supreme Severe Emotional Disturbance 
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Copyright information

© The Hastings Center 1981

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ruth Macklin
    • 1
  • Willard Gaylin
    • 2
  1. 1.Albert Einstein College of MedicineBronxUSA
  2. 2.The Hastings CenterHastings-on-HudsonUSA

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