Utah's 50-year sterilization program victimized at least 830 people

"For the first time, we have a sense of the human scale of the eugenic assault here in Utah, and the lasting legacy of that assault in the form of survivors still living in 2023."
Deena Theresa
Representational picture of a crowd.
Representational picture of a crowd.


For the first time, a study undertaken on Utah’s eugenic sterilization program has provided a "sense of the human scale of the eugenic assault" in Utah and the legacy of the assault passed on through survivors still living in 2023. 

At least 830 men, women, and children were victims of a sterilization program that lasted for 50 years in Utah and primarily targeted people confined to state institutions. Many were teenagers or younger when operated upon; at least one child was under the age of 10. Approximately 54 of them may still be alive, a press release stated.

The research was undertaken by James Tabery, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Utah and lead author, and his co-authors. The paper detailing the findings appeared today in The Lancet Regional Health - Americas.

Who were the eugenicists?

Eugenicists believe in eliminating so-called ills through genetics and heredity and thereby supposedly perfecting human beings. According to them, the use of methods such as involuntary sterilization, segregation, and social exclusion would get rid of individuals deemed to be unfit. 

The eugenic movement, which was quite popular across the United States in the early-20th century, combined "pseudoscientific ideas about the existence of genes for complex traits like criminality and poverty with racist and ableist biases about what lives were worth living". These were to decide who in society was "fit" and worthy of producing offspring and who was "unfit" and unworthy.

Utah's 50-year sterilization program victimized at least 830 people
Utah State Training School.

What was the eugenic sterilization program?

Utah was one of 32 states that passed legislation permitting the sterilization of people on eugenic grounds. More than 60,000 people were sterilized across America to mold human populations into the eugenic ideal.

People institutionalized at the Utah State Hospital, Utah State Prison, and Utah State Industrial School and deemed to be "habitually sexually criminal, insane, idiotic, imbecile, feeble-minded or epileptic, and by the laws of heredity is the probable parent of socially inadequate off-spring likewise afflicted", were authorized to be sterilized after Utah's sterilization law was passed in 1925. 

And when the Utah State Training School (now Utah State Developmental Center) opened in the early 1930s to care for the "feebleminded," the law was revised to include patients there too. The institutionalized program peaked in Utah in the 1940s and didn’t end until 1974. 

The publication uncovered information on every documented case

The publication comprises demographic information on almost every documented case that took place in Utah. The research team was able to estimate the number of sterilization survivors still living in 2023 to be approximately 54 (36 women and 18 men), with an average age of 78. The results are noteworthy as there was no single eugenics board overseeing the sterilizations in Utah.

The paper "Victims of Eugenic Sterilisation in Utah" also describes how the cases evolved over time. Initially, state-sanctioned sterilizations more often targeted men than women. Later, the program captured a younger population and focused on sterilizing more females than males.

"One striking feature of Utah’s sterilization program," according to Tabery, "is just how long it lasted." Many states ramped down their sterilization programs in the 1940s and 1950s due to the following reasons: 

The horrific eugenic vision carried out by the Nazis in Germany was uncovered by the end of World War II. And by the mid-20th century, human geneticists made it evident that no amount of sterilization could eliminate criminality or poverty as they had no specific genes.

But the Utah legislature changed the rationale for its sterilization program in 1961, stating that institutionalized people could be sterilized if they were deemed "unlikely to be able to perform properly the functions of parenthood". 

Utah legislators yet to apologize

Utah's sterilization program was particularly aggressive to the point where eugenics leaders hailed the state for sterilizing a far greater proportion of its residents than any other state in 1947 as an "important achievement in public health".

Sadly, unlike the other states, Utah has expressed no regrets, and legislators have not issued any official apologies for their terrifying past. Considering the advanced age of potential survivors in Utah, Tabery and his co-authors concluded that "time is running out for a reconciliation that can be experienced by those who were most harmed by the medical practice".

Study abstract:

Background: Eugenicists at the beginning of the twentieth century feared that the “unfit” were outbreeding the “fit” and promoted interventions like sterilization as a solution to the perceived problem. Over 60,000 people were sterilized across the United States, victims of eugenic programs implemented in 32 states. Utah had a particularly aggressive eugenic sterilization program, hailed by eugenicists for sterilizing such a large proportion of its population and lasting well into the 1970s. The goal of the present study was to determine who, at the demographic level, was targeted by this eugenic practice in Utah, and to also estimate how many survivors of the program might still be alive in 2023.

Methods: We used archival records and data abstracted from charts at the Utah State Developmental Center to construct an observational cohort of people sterilized under Utah’s coercive, eugenic sterilization program. We described the demographics of the cohort and presented a life table analysis to estimate the number of survivors still living in 2023.

Findings: At least 830 men, women, and children (modal age of 15–19, 53.6% female) were sterilized in Utah institutions under a program that was launched in 1925, peaked in the 1940s, and concluded in the 1970s. The life table analysis predicts approximately 54 survivors (36 women, 18 men), with an average age of 78.

Interpretation: Many people sterilized under Utah’s eugenics law are likely living today. While some states have taken steps to reckon with their roles in depriving people of their reproductive rights, Utah lacks even an official acknowledgment of this shameful, medical history. Given the advanced age of the potential survivors, time is running out for a reconciliation that can be experienced by those who were most harmed by the practice.

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