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Access Press - Minnesota's Disability Community Newspaper

Historian Speaks on Sterilization in Minnesota

by // July 10th, 2001

Molly Ladd-Taylor, a historian at York University in Toronto, Canada, visited a Remembering with Dignity (RWD) board meeting at Advocating Change Together (ACT) on June 19, 2001, after finding ACT’s website at www.selfadvocacy.com.  She met with eight board members as part of her research into the sterilization of women that occurred to people under legal state guardianship and to people in institutions from the 1920’s through 1975.

At the meeting, Ladd-Taylor had a chance to talk with Gloria Steinbring, a RWD board member who was sterilized against her will.  Steinbring tells of her personal loss, “I had no say in it. Everyday, I think about a child.  Would it have been a boy or a girl?  What would it look like?
Would it have a disability or not?”  Ladd-Taylor suggested that Steinbring seek legal recompense not only for her own well-being, but also as a way of ensuring that the practice of sterilization is not repeated on other people.

Specifically, Ladd-Taylor’s research concerns the many factors which influenced sterilizations for the “feeble-minded” (as they were then termed by the state). One of the major factors most often associated with the practice is eugenics. Dr. Charles Dight was the leader of this movement in Minnesota, aimed at ridding society of the so-called “unfit.”  He founded  the Minnesota Eugenics Society at the University of Minnesota, wrote a fan letter to Hitler, and brought statewide attention to the idea of “the menace of the feeble-minded.”

In addition to eugenics, potential cost-savings for the state were used to justify sterilizations.  Proponents claimed these operations would, for example, potentially reduce welfare costs and the budgets of state institutions.

In 1925, sterilization became legal through the MN eugenics sterilization law. The terms of the 1925 law called sterilization “permissive,” meaning that it was not limited to institutionalized people and included anybody for which legal guardianship went to the State Board of Control.  While sterilizations were also termed “voluntary,” and typically required consent from a family member, the State reserved the right to give consent for any person over whom the state claimed legal guardianship.

Ideas popularized by Dight and others at the time touted the benefits of eugenics and forced sterilization in reducing poverty, crime, and hereditary defects.   Families thus faced many social pressures to consent to the sterilizations.  In addition, social standards in 1925 were conservative, as unmarried mothers, for example, were routinely determined “feeble-minded” by county probate judges, brought under state guardianship, and often sterilized. As a result, nearly two thousand people had been sterilized in Minnesota by 1950.

With her research, Ladd-Taylor aims to show that the painful consequences of the sterilizations of people like Gloria Steinbring continue for many years beyond the actual sterilizations, which are no longer legal.  Instead, the plight of these “unfit” people came as a result of, as Ladd-Taylor states, “the most vulnerable members of a community not having access to the services and resources they need.” 

Remembering with Dignity and Ladd-Taylor discussed the importance of the state taking responsibility to change and to avoid such misuses of power in the future.

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