Survival of the Fittest (Or the Richest)

Monica Knaack is a second-year Biology major at Grinnell College in Grinnell, IA. Outside of her academics, she enjoys playing volleyball, hiking, and snuggling with her black lab puppy, Ella.

In an age when a rapidly growing human population is no longer a sign of prosperity, but rather represents a growing strain on limited resources, measures to control population increase are one of the principal issues many world leaders must address in their respective countries. Many of these world leaders have been driven to extreme measures to control their populations, such as China’s one-child policy or the legacy of forced sterilizations in India. In general, demographers have found that birth rates tend to be much lower in areas with higher standards of living, which suggests that unsafe and morally questionable population control measures would only be a major issue in developing countries whose fertility rates are significantly higher than the replacement level of fertility. Richer countries, however, especially the United States, have a long, heartbreaking history with forced sterilizations as well, continuing into the present day. The question then becomes why countries like the United States, with relatively low birthrates, still forcibly sterilize certain members of their society as a method of population control.

The principal answer comes down to the powerful eugenics movement, which has existed in the United States for over a century. Eugenics describes the belief that personal and life history traits, such as poverty, alcoholism, criminality, or illegitimacy are inherited traits that cannot be changed from generation to generation. Therefore, eugenicists encourage so-called fit members of society to reproduce at levels higher than the reproduction rate of those deemed unfit.[1] Often those unfit members of society are forcibly forbidden from reproducing by being sterilized, either through a tubal ligation or a vasectomy, although the female procedure is much more common.

The heyday of the eugenics movement was in the early 1900s, when immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were arriving to America in massive numbers. At this time, many middle- and upper-class white, native-born men were concerned about losing their position at the top of the social ladder. Since eugenics seemed to have a pseudo-scientific backing with its references to genes and inheritance, it was a useful tool for these privileged white men to be able to soothe their anxieties about all of the social changes that were happening in this time of great immigration and industrialization.

Efforts to control a population often manifest themselves as attempts to control bodies, and those in power in America during the eugenics movement could see no better way to control the masses than by forcibly removing their ability to have their own families. Eugenic logic said that sterilization was one of the only options to maintaining a healthy society because the unfit members would be unable to have children, and therefore their genes, along with their poverty, alcoholism, or criminality, would soon die out from the population.

This movement to sterilize unfit members of the population reached its peak in 1927, when a court case determined that states should have the right to forcibly sterilize any members of its population that they determined to be unfit. For many decades after this judicial decision, women who were poor, non-white, or unmarried and pregnant were forcibly sterilized at frighteningly high rates.

The eugenics movement reflected a concern over the monetary cost to society to support poor people and their children. Since eugenicists believed that poverty was passed on genetically, they saw sterilization as the only option to save the larger society from the cost of supporting these poverty-stricken families. Since most people of color, criminals, and unmarried women with children also happened to be poor, sterilization seemed to offer an ideal, albeit immoral, solution to this fiscal problem. This logic was especially popular during the years of the Great Depression, when money was scarce for everyone, and no one wanted to pay extra taxes to support those unfortunate enough to be poor, colored, or female.

These forced sterilizations continued to take place for decades, even during the Baby Boom from 1946 until the mid-1960s, when an unprecedented number of babies were born in a short amount of time. While some mothers, or potential mothers, were discouraged or forced to refrain from having children, those women that were deemed fit found it nearly impossible to obtain tubal ligations to avoid having more children. Hospitals even implemented rules that required women to have a certain number of children before they were even considered for a tubal ligation. This phenomenon was known as positive eugenics because it encouraged the perpetuation of the gene pool that was considered the most advanced and desirable. Even while these desirable mothers were largely unable to obtain sterilization if they wanted it, their husbands were still able to have vasectomies without any questions asked, reflecting the sexism that still permeated American society.[2]

Officially, the eugenics movement ended for the most part by the end of the Baby Boom, as proven by the closure of most official eugenics organizations. Unfortunately, the eugenics movement has been replaced by a slightly modified neo-eugenics movement, which also believes that characteristics or traits such as poverty, criminality, and illegitimacy are signs that a person is unfit to reproduce. The difference is that neo-eugenicists believe that these traits are passed on not genetically, but through culture and environment. This movement recognizes that traits like poverty and illegitimacy are not actually included in the genetic code, but it has many of the same effects as the original eugenics movement.

Neo-eugenics developed during the Civil Rights Movement, a time when white privilege was clearly threatened in the United States.[3] These neo-eugenicists were concerned with preserving the white race, which ironically now included southern and eastern Europeans, who had earlier been considered the greatest threat to the purity of white America. Currently, neo-eugenics rarely targets white women, regardless of their socioeconomic status, but instead focuses its attention on recent immigrants, blacks, and Mexicans, among others.

In the 1970s, the eugenics movement began to focus its attention on other underprivileged groups of people. Physicians employed by the Indian Health Service, who were supposed to be providing medical care for Native American women, forcibly sterilized somewhere between 25 and 42 percent of Native American women of childbearing age. At the same time, women on welfare who had an illegitimate child were often punished by forced sterilizations immediately after giving birth. The eugenicists and physicians who performed this procedure justified it by saying that “those who accepted government assistance should submit to government oversight and conform to mainstream, white middle-class values and gender roles.”[4] Anyone who did not follow the social rules of middle-class white men could be subject to forced sterilization.

Unfortunately, the neo-eugenics movement has not disappeared from the American consciousness. Between 2006 and 2010, 148 women incarcerated in California prisons were illegally and forcibly sterilized through the use of tubal ligations.[5] Only since 1979 have forced sterilizations been forbidden in California, and although these women were clearly wronged, there are still many supporters of these practices for women in prison.[6]

Despite the fact that eugenic ideas still permeate much of American society, statistics show that fertility levels are declining in most of the world. If current trends continue, in the near future half of the human population will be at the replacement level of fertility, or 2.1 children per set of parents.[7] If all humans eventually began to reproduce at exactly the replacement level of fertility, the entire world population would stabilize and we would not see the exponential human population growth that we are currently experiencing. The United States is currently at almost exactly the replacement level of 2.1 children per family, and any increases in the national population are due almost exclusively to immigration and higher life expectancies, not incredibly high birth rates.

Even though that the birth rate is not significantly contributing to American population growth rates, eugenicists still feel threatened by the idea of allowing all Americans, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or personal history, to found a family if they so desire. Perhaps this fear is grounded in the same worries that concerned the earliest American eugenicists in the early 1900s when immigrant populations were reproducing at levels higher than native populations, suggesting that white, native-born men may eventually lose their place at the top of the social ladder.

Much of the rhetoric supporting eugenics or neo-eugenics worldwide has recently centered on the fact that the world population is still growing at an incredible rate. It seems that the world will soon run out of resources to support the human population, and some even argue that the current population of humans is too large for this planet to support. Other research has found, however, that there are better ways of controlling human populations than by forcibly sterilizing unwilling individuals. Educating girls is one of the best ways to decrease the fertility rate, as fertility falls the fastest in places with rigorous literacy programs for girls.[8] In general, richer countries also have lower fertility rates, suggesting that humanitarian efforts to increase the standard of living can also be instrumental in decreasing the fertility rate as well.[9]

Lower fertility, in turn, increases the standard of living in a particular country and improves their economy. When mothers have fewer children, they are more likely to work, which increases their family income.[10] When their families have more money, they are more likely to educate their children, which provides their country with much-needed professionals, and the cycle continues.

These are only a few examples of the ways in which the human population can be managed in a much more humane manner than forced sterilization. Sterilization is, of course, a viable birth control option if it is chosen with informed, voluntary consent. Over the years, however, eugenics encouraged the involuntary sterilization of hundreds of thousands of unwilling people from 1870 until 1945, and these forcible sterilization techniques were still used commonly from the 1960s through the 1990s.[11]

Today, forced sterilization procedures particularly affect the poor, ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples, transgender and intersex people, people living with HIV, and disabled people.[12] As mentioned earlier, this practice has not completely disappeared from the United States, especially among populations of people with no voice, such as women in prisons.

In direct opposition to eugenics, the United Nations, along with many other individuals and institutions, have begun to publicly support the idea that everyone has the right to found a family and determine the spacing and number of their children.[13]


For Further Reading

Campos, Paul. “Eugenics are Alive and Well in the United States: Judging by the Reaction to the Recent Report that 148 Women were Sterilized Illegally in California Prisons, a Little History Lesson is in Order.” Time Magazine, July 10, 2013. Accessed February 20, 2015.

Gordon, Linda. The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Kluchin, Rebecca M. Fit to Be Tied: Sterilization and Reproductive Rights in America 1950-1980. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009.


[1] Rebecca M. Kluchin, Fit to Be Tied: Sterilization and Reproductive Rights in America 1950-1980. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009.), 11.

[2] Ibid, 25.

[3] Ibid, 20.

[4] Ibid, 5.

[5] Paul Campos, “Eugenics are Alive and Well in the United States: Judging by the Reaction to the Recent Report that 148 Women were Sterilized Illegally in California Prisons, a Little History Lesson is in Order,” Time Magazine, July 10, 2013, 1.

[6] Ibid, 3.

[7] “Go Forth and Multiply a Lot Less,” The Economist, October 29, 2009, 2.

[8] Ibid, 4.

[9] Ibid, 5.

[10] Ibid, 6.

[11] OHCHR, UN Women, UNAIDS, UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF, and WHO, “Eliminating forced, coercive, and otherwise involuntary sterilization: An interagency statement,” May 2014, 8.

[12] Ibid, 7.

[13] Ibid, 16.