This historical marker on the east lawn of the Indiana State Library presents the troubling history of the 1907 Indiana Eugenics Law. Believing that heredity plays a most important part in the trans-mission of crime, idiocy and imbecility, this law legalized involuntary sterilization at state prisons, hospitals, and asylums throughout Indiana. The law, which was later found to be unconstitutional, was the first of its kind. From 1907 to 1974 (with a 1927 revised law), over 2,300 Indiana citizens were involuntarily sterilized.
The idea that criminality and mental disability was hereditary was part of a psuedo-science called Eugenics. Building on this psuedo-science, advocates of eugenics suggested that sterilization of mentally and physically disabled people, criminals, would help to eliminate crime and disability.During the late 19th and early 20th century, some advocates of Eugenics also claimed that science proved that certain races were superior to others. Some even used eugenics to call for the sterilization of inferior races as a way to lead humanity to a higher and more pure state.
The 1907 Indiana Eugenics Law was not a surprise, and the movement that led to the bill's passing dates back to, at least, the biological ideas of Sir Francis Galton in the 1880s as well as Progressive Era beginning in the US.
At the time, as the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and a widening gap between the rich and the poor was growing. Among labor and social reforms associated with the Progressives, such as child labor laws and food and drug regulations, the idea of inherited, negative personality traits was a common theme. This was also based on, in part, an 1879 paper presented to the Social Science Association of Indiana, in which Harriet Foster claimed that imbeciles and the feeble-minded would inherit those traits from their parents.
It was these ideas, among many others, that led Indiana governor J. Frank Hanly to sign the eugenics law. The Indiana Supreme Court later struck down the law in 1921, though six years later in 1927, the legislature succeeded in passing a second law. From 1927 until 1974, more than 2,300 Indiana citizens were involuntarily sterilized.1
1907 Indiana Eugenics Law (1907) Text
AN ACT entitled an act to prevent procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists; providing that superintendents and boards of managers of institutions where such persons are confined shall have the authority and are empowered to appoint a committee of experts, consisting of two (2) physicians, to examine into the mental condition of such inmates.
[H. 364. Approved March 9, 1907.]
Whereas, Heredity plays a most important part in the trans-mission of crime, idiocy and imbecility;
Penal Institutions—Surgical Operations.
Therefore, Be it enacted by the general assembly of the State of Indiana, That on and after the passage of this act it shall be compulsory for each and every institution in the state, entrusted with the care of confirmed criminals, idiots, rapists and imbeciles, to appoint upon its staff, in addition to the regular institutional physician, two (2) skilled surgeons of recognized ability, whose duty it shall be, in conjunction with the chief physician of the institution, to examine the mental and physical condition of such inmates as are recommended by the institutional physician and board of managers. If, in the judgment of this committee of experts and the board of managers, procreation is inadvisable and there is no probability of improvement of the mental condition of the inmate, it shall be lawful for the surgeons to perform such operation for the prevention of procreation as shall be decided safest and most effective. But this operation shall not be performed except in cases that have been pronounced unimprovable: Provided, That in no case shall the consultation fee be more than three ($3.00) dollars to each expert, to be paid out of the funds appropriated for the maintenance of such institution.2
Inscription on the Historical Marker
By late 1800s, Indiana authorities believed criminality, mental problems, and pauperism were hereditary. Various laws were enacted based on this belief. In 1907, Governor J. Frank Hanly approved first state eugenics law making sterilization mandatory for certain individuals in state custody. Sterilizations halted 1909 by Governor Thomas R. Marshall.
Indiana Supreme Court ruled 1907 law unconstitutional 1921, citing denial of due process under Fourteenth Amendment. A 1927 law provided for appeals in the courts. Approximately 2,500 people in state custody were sterilized. Governor Otis R. Bowen approved repeal of all sterilization laws 1974; by 1977, related restrictive marriage laws repealed.3