SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) — From 1925 through the next five decades here in Utah, at least 830 men, women, and children were victims of a state-sponsored sterilization program based on the pseudoscience of eugenics.
As many as 54 of those people sterilized in Utah may still be alive, though their identities have not been released.
In 1928, a Utah girl reported to her religious leader that she was repeatedly raped by a family member. He didn’t believe her, and instead, she was admitted to the Utah State Hospital, where she was diagnosed as a “moron” and sterilized.
The eugenics movement, which was popular across the nation during the early 20th century, relied on false principles about the existence of genes for traits like criminality and poverty, using racist and ableist biases to decide which individuals were deserving of bearing children.
If you didn’t know this was happening — and a great many didn’t — a new study released today in The Lancet Regional Health – Americas titled “Victims of Eugenic Sterilisation in Utah” shows the full extent of the program and its effect locally.
Overall, the study shows more than 60,000 individuals across the United States were victims of this eugenics program. Of those affected here in Utah, approximately 54 residents (36 women and 18 men) may still be alive today. Their average age is believed to be 78.
It primarily targeted those confined to state institutions labeled “habitually sexually criminal, insane, idiotic, imbecile, feeble-minded or epileptic, and by the laws of heredity is the probable parent of socially inadequate offspring likewise afflicted.”
Many of those operated upon were teenagers or younger, with at least one child under the age of 10, according to the study.
According to James Tabery, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Utah and lead author of the paper: “For the first time, we have a sense of the human scale of the eugenic assault here in Utah, as well as the lasting legacy of that assault in the form of survivors still living in 2023.”
The effect of eugenics on Utah
Utah was one of 32 states that passed legislation to permit this sterilization. When the law was first passed, it authorized the sterilization of those institutionalized at the Utah State Hospital, Utah State Prison, and Utah State Industrial School (now the Utah State Development Center).
In 1947, Utah’s sterilization program affected a far greater proportion of its residents than any other state in the nation — at the time hailed as an “important achievement in public health” by eugenics leaders.
These sterilizations peaked during the 1940s, and no more were reported after 1974.
Many other states ramped down their sterilization programs during the 1940s and 1950s after World War II. This was partly in response to the discovery of concentration camps spawned by the Nazi Party in Germany, which embraced eugenics.
Despite clear proof from human geneticists in the mid-20th century that there were no simple genes for criminality or poverty, Utah had a “stubborn persistence” say Tabery and his co-authors.
To circumvent developments, the Utah Legislature even changed the rationale for its program in 1961 to argue that those in local institutions could still be sterilized if deemed “unlikely to be able to perform the functions of parenthood.”
During this time, with no single eugenics board overseeing sterilizations, these decisions were controlled by administrative staff at the state hospital, state prison, and state training schools.
This lack of oversight in the name of pseudoscientific bias had many victims around the state. While other states, including their governors and legislatures, have issued official apologies for the shocking deeds of their past, Utah has failed to express regret or even acknowledge the history.
This study sourced its findings from a de-identified database compiled by staff at the Utah State Development Center and a master’s thesis by a University of Utah graduate student in 1932 reporting on cases of sterilization during this period.