5.4.6. The Midwest, 1900-1925: Eugenics Laws


  • One of the less attractive byproducts of advances in genetic science in the late 19th century witnessed the rise of was the “eugenics” movement.  Movement leaders, including Eugene Laughlin and Chicago municipal court Chief Judge Harry Olson, advocated sterilization of Americans perceived as mentally defective, including the insane and the slow-witted, in order to strengthen the nation. 
  • Laughlin and Olson’s efforts elicited a favorable response from Americans uneasy about the nation’s increasing diversity and its future in the modern world.  Indiana was the first state to enact a  compulsory sterilization law, and most Midwestern states quickly followed suit. Ironically, Olson’s Illinois was one of the few states that consistently refused to do so. 


Key cases:  eugenics laws

Williams v. Smith – Indiana, 1921 (131 N.E. 2); Smith v. Wayne Probate Judge – Michigan, 1925 (204 N.W. 140)

  • Several Midwestern courts struck down their states’ laws, but in many cases the laws were revised, re-enacted and then upheld.  For example, Indiana allowed sterilization of “criminals, idiots, rapists and imbeciles” deemed “unimprovable.”  The Indiana supreme court struck down the law in Williams because it gave victims no advance notice and no chance to be heard before being sterilized.  The legislature then passed a new law providing for a hearing, which was never challenged. 
  • In 1918 the Michigan supreme court struck down a sterilization law limited to institutionalized patients on the ground that it discriminated against such patients, who could not have children in any case.  The legislature then enacted a law applying to all “mental defectives” [ck] and in Wayne Probate Judge, the court held that the new law was a legitimate exercise of the police power and a necessary response to a serious threat.  One dissenter, Howard Wiest, denounced the law as a return to the dark ages.  Many Midwesterners shared his sentiments:   efforts to enact sterilization laws failed repeatedly in Ohio and Illinois.     


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Anthropometry (human measurement) exhibit at Second International Exhibition of Eugenics, 1921 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

“That they [mentally disabled people] are a serious menace to society no one will question. … [I]t was not only [the legislature’s] undoubted right, but it was its duty to enact some legislation that would protect the people and preserve the race from the known effects of the procreation of children by the feeble-minded, the idiots and the imbeciles.” -Justice John McDonald,  in Wayne Probate Judge

“We … are inclined to revert to old-time cruelties because sugar-coated with a scientific name and heralded as a new thing under the sun.” -Justice Howard Wiest (dissenting), in Wayne Probate Judge