Indiana and the institutionalization of eugenics

Question:  Indiana’s legislature passed the first eugenics law in the world in

A. 1891

B. 1907

C. 1925

D. 1941

Answer: B. In 1907, the Indiana legislature passed a bill calling for the forced sterilization of people who were deemed to be “degenerate” or “feeble-minded.” This marked the first successful eugenics policy initiative in not only the U.S., but the entire world.

Tree rings
What year was it?

Eugenics is an ideology which promotes practices that improve the genetic makeup of a society. Though it is generally associated with Nazi Germany, the U.S. was the original breeding ground of such ideas. Around the turn of the 20th century, when the Indiana bill was proposed, eugenics was extremely popular in American progressive circles and was becoming increasingly accepted in the mainstream public (Nilsson).

In order to pursue its eugenic goals, the Indiana law prescribed the sterilization of all “criminals, idiots, rapists, and imbeciles in state custody” (Indiana). The push for sterilization was partially fueled by the invention of the vasectomy in Indiana. The vasectomy procedure was seen as both a more humane and more efficient method of sterilization than previous standards (Kaelber). With this new development, eugenics became not only more medically and economically plausible, but also more socially acceptable.

Though these procedures went into effect in 1907, the law was soon halted by Indiana’s new governor Thomas Riley Marshall in 1909. In 1921, the law was ultimately shot down by the Indiana Supreme Court (Indiana).

This is not to say that eugenics was on the decline just yet. Fifteen other U.S. states had created similar sterilization laws by the time of the Indiana bill’s fall (Indiana). In addition, following the court’s decision in 1921, there was a revived movement for a sterilization law in Indiana. In 1927, a second sterilization law was passed by the legislature. The second law was more limited in scope than the first. It no longer focused on sterilizing criminals, only people with mental illnesses (Kaelber). The second law also lasted much longer – it was expanded in 1931 and was not repealed until 1974.

During the total period of sterilization laws in Indiana – from 1907 to 1974 – it is estimated that 2,500 sterilizations were carried out in the state. The majority of these sterilizations appear to have occurred between 1933 and 1950, with very few taking place after 1950 (Kaelber).

This cutoff in the use of eugenics can be partially attributed to the hugely negative impression that Nazi Germany’s use of eugenics left on the world. Following World War II, the term “eugenics” began to be thrown around as a politically and morally slanderous term (Nilsson). Nowadays, the age of eugenics is looked back on as a major black mark in U.S. history and a serious affront to the rights of people with disabilities. So has eugenics completely disappeared? It’s not clear. The practice may just be taking on a new guise. With the rise of pre-natal genetic technology, eugenics is reentering the conversation in new, more subtle ways.  It is an issue that the disability community will surely face in the years to come.


“Eugenic Sterilizations in Indiana,” written by Lutz Kaelber, published in the University of Vermont’s Eugenic: Compulsory Sterilization in 50 American States.

“Eugenics: A Historical Analysis,” written by Kevin Nilsson, published on University of Dayton’s Chronology of the History of Science.

“1907 Indiana Eugenics Law,” published on the Government of Indiana’s website.

M.G. Stroh is the Executive Director of DisAbility Rights Washington and Editor of DisAbility Rights Galaxy. He has been a disability rights advocate for thirty plus years. Prior to moving to Washington state in January of 1990, he worked for the Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service and Arc Of Michigan for thirteen years. He was born and raised in Indiana.