Although the theory of eugenics—improving humanity through controlled breeding—originated in Great Britain, American advocates of “racial hygiene,” as it was often known, achieved the first eugenics laws in history, beginning with Indiana’s 1907 sterilization law. In 1919, Alabama joined 32 other states that, at one time or another, had enacted a eugenic sterilization statute. Unlike their allies in other states, however, Alabamian eugenicists (those who believed the doctrines of eugenics) never managed to garner widespread public support. Alabama legislators rejected proposals for more aggressive eugenics programs in 1935, 1939, and 1943. Although Alabama eugenicists’ legislative efforts failed, ideas about “racial improvement” persisted. The eugenicists’ political defeat masked the widespread application of eugenic sterilization by Alabama physicians in both public and private practice. These doctors sterilized poor women and women of color to “improve” society by reducing the state’s welfare burden. The 1974 federal court case Relf v. Weinberger exposed sterilization abuse in Alabama and around the nation and led to reforms that protected poor women from abuse.
Origins of Eugenics
Galton, Francis In 1883, Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, coined the word eugenics from the Greek words for “good” and “birth,” meaning “well-born.” He defined eugenics as the science of improving the human gene pool by helping superior races (by which he generally meant white Europeans) outcompete inferior races in reproduction. He believed that public charity and social welfare allowed the poor and inferior to subsist and reproduce, thus hindering human evolution and threatening civilization with massive economic and public health burdens. Galton advocated positive and negative eugenics as the principal methods for improving the human race. Positive eugenics efforts provided education to healthy and productive people (individuals Galton and his followers considered fit to reproduce) about their responsibility to choose healthy mates and have many children. Galton also lobbied for government marriage stipends to encourage marriage among the fit, with subsequent tax refunds for each child born to eugenic families. In contrast to the fit, eugenicists believed that individuals they considered unfit (people with mental disorders and physical malformations, the chronically ill, and those who were simply poor) had to be compelled to give up parenthood. Galton’s negative eugenic initiatives included segregation of the unfit in institutions, compulsory sterilization, marriage restriction, immigration restriction (because Galton and his followers believed that all people not of western-European origin were inherently inferior), and the most radical intervention, euthanasia of those considered severely “defective.”
Eugenics Comes to Alabama
Grounded in the reform-minded Progressive Era, Southern eugenicists rallied around the notion that the South needed to free itself from the economic anchor of unfit people to escape its reputation as a backward region handicapped by the loss of its best and brightest during the Civil War. In Alabama, most white physicians promoted eugenics as the cure for a sick society. Prominent doctors lobbied their fellow physicians in an effort to gain their support, a necessary step in bringing the cause of eugenics before the state legislature. In 1901, Birmingham physician Richard Bankston told the Medical Association of the State of Alabama (MASA) that, “science may develop and cultivate the type best fitted to survive and perpetuate our kind.” Implicitly white, these fit people would be moral, healthy, productive citizens. Eugenics would improve Alabama society by preventing socially disruptive people from reproducing “their kind.” Physician John E. Purdon that same year advocated sterilizing criminals to “perfect” the human race. Such promises won over many Alabama physicians.
Partlow, William Six presidents of MASA became outspoken eugenicists, including William Dempsey Partlow, head of the state’s facilities for the mentally disabled. Partlow publicly used the analogy of stockbreeding to cast eugenics in familiar language that persuaded many people. He called for sterilization, the promotion of birth control, and segregation of the unfit while encouraging the physically and mentally fit to procreate. Between 1910 and 1914, eugenicists lobbied MASA to call on the legislature to enact eugenic policies. In 1915, MASA leadership endorsed a proposal to create the State Society for Mental Hygiene, which then organized the Alabama Society for Mental Hygiene, a lobbying group composed of physicians, educators, legislators, and women’s groups.
Leaders of the two mental hygiene societies convinced legislators to open a home for the mentally disabled in 1919. The bill creating the Alabama Home for the Feeble-Minded in Tuscaloosa passed overwhelmingly. (The school was renamed the Partlow State School for Mental Deficients in 1924.) What opposition existed revolved around the facility’s cost, reflecting the state’s poverty rather than legislators’ concerns with the morality of eugenics. Alabama eugenicists had popularized the idea of segregating the unfit to prevent their procreation. Embedded in the act creating the institution was a clause that allowed the superintendent, William Partlow, to sterilize inmates with the agreement of the superintendent of nearby Bryce Hospital for the Insane. With the force of the new legislation behind him, Partlow maintained a strict policy of sterilizing every inmate discharged from the institution. By 1935, he had sterilized 129 men and 95 women.
In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Buck v. Bell that compulsory sterilization was constitutional. By that time, 30 other states in addition to Alabama had sterilization laws, and California and Virginia had sterilized thousands of patients. In 1934, spurred on by emerging Nazi eugenic policies, Partlow and other public health authorities claimed that Alabamians demanded a more comprehensive law. They proposed legislation that would allow the superintendents of all state institutions to sterilize patients upon discharge. It would also create a three-doctor board that, with concurrence of the governor, had the right to sterilize anyone convicted of three crimes or deemed sexually perverted. The legislation would empower county public health committees to sterilize anyone in state or local custodial institutions, including children in reform schools or schools for the blind and deaf. Finally, it would have made anyone classified as chronically poor liable to sterilization. Partlow’s plan elicited a firestorm of protest. Expert physicians, the state’s leading newspapers, and reform-minded legislators defended the proposal from civil libertarians, many conservative evangelicals, and Catholic leaders, who formally opposed the measure and denounced birth control and eugenics generally (in the case of Catholics) in line with the 1931 papal encyclical Casti Connubii (“On Christian Marriage”). The legislature passed the measure by large majorities.
Bibb Graves Gov. Bibb Graves left no recorded opinion reflecting his views of the legislation, but he sought an advisory opinion on the bill’s constitutionality, which implies a certain degree of skepticism. In 1935, the Alabama Supreme Court unanimously held that the proposed law violated the due process clauses of both the state and federal constitutions because it did not allow patients to appeal sterilization orders. Graves vetoed the bill and a revised version. Partlow and the eugenicists thus lost their far-reaching program. Moreover, the court’s decision suggested that the 1919 sterilization clause was unconstitutional as well. Frustrated, Partlow ceased sterilizing patients at discharge, even though it meant retaining more inmates at public expense.
This failure did not sound the death knell for Alabama eugenics, however. The legislature reconsidered the Partlow bill in 1939 and 1943. In 1945, two state senators sponsored a bill calling for the involuntary sterilization of every person committed to or eligible for commission to the state’s insane asylums. Supporters included biologists, physicians, Protestant ministers, and women’s associations. Once again, Alabama Catholics mounted the most vocal resistance. Passed by the Senate, the bill died in the lower house. Yet the specter of institutionalized eugenics in Alabama lingered until 1973, when U.S. District Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr., a native Alabamian, explicitly invalidated the 1919 sterilization statute in Wyatt v. Aderholt. Johnson mandated rigorous standards to govern sterilizations in state institutions. This, however, did not end Alabama’s eugenic history.
The Passing of Eugenics
Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. Even as Judge Johnson’s decision made headlines, another eugenic scandal rocked Alabama. In June 1973, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed suit on behalf of Minnie and Mary Alice Relf, two African American girls who were sterilized without their informed consent. Officials from a Montgomery welfare agency convinced the girls’ illiterate mother to sign a form that they said authorized birth control shots for the girls. In fact, their mother had signed a surgical consent form permitting the girls’ sterilization, which occurred the next day. Upon learning of the sterilization, a Catholic charity worker who had assisted the Relfs in other matters brought the case to the SPLC, which then brought suit on their behalf. The federal lawsuit Relf v. Weinberger sparked investigations by the U.S. Congress, women’s-rights advocates, and anti-poverty activists. Women, especially poor women of color, came forward with tales of coercive sterilization. Ultimately, federal judge Gerhard Gesell, in Washington, D.C., ruled that every year as many as 100,000 American women underwent sterilization without giving their informed consent. Noting that the line separating contraception and eugenics was “murky,” he restricted the use of federal funds for sterilization procedures, protecting poor women from mistreatment.
The Relfs’ sterilizations reflected the eugenicists’ belief that only “fit” people should become parents. In 1973, as in 1935 and 1919, fitness was as much about socio-economic status as genetic make-up. Reasoning that impoverished families give birth to children who are likely to remain impoverished strongly paralleled earlier eugenic rationales that paupers-beget-paupers and that like-begets-like, blurring the distinction between environmental and genetic influences. The Relfs’ sterilizations pointed to three disturbing trends. First, efforts to control procreation shifted from targeting only whites during the era of segregation, when whites resisted expending any money on African Americans, to targeting African Americans after the federal government demanded the equitable distribution of welfare funds among the races. Second, doctors unaffiliated with institutionalized eugenics often operated based on eugenic beliefs and sterilized thousands of women without their consent. Third, eugenic ideas persisted, in Alabama and elsewhere, long after the revelations of the Nazi holocaust prompted most leading scientists to reject eugenics as flawed, biased science that often upheld bigotry instead of improving humanity.
Today, the coercive and compulsory nature of early eugenics law is seen as an unwarranted breach of individual human rights, despite the fact that the decision in Buck v. Bell has never been overturned. The eugenic quest persists in the voluntary efforts of people who avoid marriage between carriers of genetic disorders, the prenatal screening of embryos for genetic disease, efforts to discover genetic therapies for disease, and in various books and movies such as Gattaca (1997), which was premised on advances in genetic control.
Dorr, Gregory Michael. “Defective or Disabled?: Race, Medicine, and Eugenics in Progressive Era Alabama and Virginia.” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 5 (October 2006): 359-92.
Larson, Edward J. and Leonard J. Nelson III. “Involuntary Sexual Sterilization of Incompetents in Alabama: Past, Present, and Future.” Alabama Law Review 43 (1992): 399-444.
Larson, Edward. Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.