IN A single year, 1935, physicians working for the state of North Carolina castrated or vasectomized 44 men (most of them black) and removed the fallopian tubes or ovaries of 179 women (most of them white). Almost all of these patients had been deemed mentally ill, epiletic or deficient in some way — “feebleminded,” in the parlance of the day. The operations were carried out surgically, legally and, in the vast majority of cases, forcibly; few of the victims consented.
North Carolina and 31 other states kept at it, decade after decade, intending to forge a scientifically enhanced race, purified of what they considered inferior genetic stock. A shocking number of American scholars, politicians and ethicists supported this pseudo-science known as eugenics. With the Supreme Court’s explicit blessing, some 65,000 Americans were subjected to forced sterilization, a policy of mass cruelty that crested in the 1940s and ’50s and lasted, in some states, into the '60s.