A 41-year-old woman who craved sweets and loved playing with children was labeled “feeble-minded” in 1927 after her “indifferent and abusive” husband fed her prematurely born infant twins to chickens and pigs. So, the Utah State Hospital forcibly sterilized her, wrote University of Utah researcher Gordon Sears in 1933.
Another patient in 1928 told doctors and her Latter-day Saint bishop that her older brother repeatedly raped her. The bishop said he didn’t believe her, Sears wrote. After she was sent to the Utah State Hospital, characterized as a “moron” and sterilized, the same bishop told Sears the 19-year-old patient was likely “commercially exploited” by her older sister, leading her to contract a sexually transmitted disease.
A study by researchers at the University of Utah published Wednesday in The Lancet Regional Health — Americas sheds light on how many people faced similar fates while being kept in state institutions. At least 830 men, women and children were sterilized under a eugenics-inspired law the Utah Legislature passed in 1925, according to research led by philosophy professor James Tabery.
Eugenics — a scientifically inaccurate theory proposed in the late 19th century, and popularized as a movement in the early 20th — was an attempt to improve the human species’ genetic quality by preventing the “unfit” from reproducing, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Although it was widely observed and carried out throughout the U.S., its utilization is commonly associated with Nazi Germany.
“The genomics communities continue to work to scientifically debunk eugenic myths and combat modern-day manifestations of eugenics and scientific racism, particularly as they affect people of color, people with disabilities and LGBTQ+ individuals,” NIH says.
The practice continued well into the 1970s in Utah, and a version of that forced sterilization law remains on the books. Several other states that engaged in the practice have issued formal apologies, and three — California, North Carolina and Virginia — have paid compensation to victims.
None of Utah’s governors past and present, nor its Legislature, have officially acknowledged the state’s historic propagation and execution of forced sterilization.
A spokesperson for Gov. Spencer Cox did not offer a response to The Salt Lake Tribune’s request for comment, and instead referred it to the Utah Department of Health and Human Services.
“The Utah Department of Health and Human Services offers our deepest apologies for the loss, anxiety, trauma, and lasting side effects our friends and neighbors have suffered as a result of the state’s past non-consensual sterilization program,” the department wrote in a statement provided Wednesday morning.
“We are in the process of trying to identify any individuals still living who underwent these procedures. We plan to issue personal apologies to any individuals we are able to identify. While an apology cannot right the wrongs that were committed, we recognize the importance of acknowledging and understanding this history so we can learn from it and do better both now and in the future,” the statement continued.
The Associated Press wrote in 1949 that the state’s program was praised by eugenics advocate Clarence Gamble as “an important achievement in public health,” as it reportedly reached the point of sterilizing a greater proportion of its residents than any other state.
As many as 54 of the individuals forcibly sterilized in Utah may still be alive today, researchers estimated, with an average age of 78 years old.
“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,” the study reads.
Those targeted for sterilization include people with psychiatric conditions, like a 32-year-old woman who was sterilized in 1923 for being depressed; those with physical disabilities, like a 22-year-old man who suffered “epileptic attack(s)” after being hit in the head with a basketball and was sterilized in 1930; and people with intellectual disabilities, like a man who struggled to speak and was described as “something of a ‘Pollyanna’, cheering other patients” until he was asked about his 1926 castration, which he protested “strongly.”
Others subjected to sterilization were incarcerated in the Utah State Prison like Esau Walton, who was an “accused ‘homosexual,’” according to the Utah Division of Archives and Records Service. He successfully appealed the decision in front of the Utah Supreme Court.
Numerous women were sent to the Utah State Hospital for repeatedly having sex outside of marriage, and were sterilized for being sexually deviant. One 47-year-old father of eight who was staying at the hospital because he was “manic depressive,” reportedly due to being overworked, was sterilized in 1928 at the request of county commissioners because his family “was living largely on charity.”
Utah’s practice of sterilizing people it deemed threats to society continued well beyond World War II, when many falsely believe eugenics practices to have ended, researchers wrote.
The 1925 law was amended by the Legislature in 1961 to not focus on the genetics of the people who could be compelled to be sterilized, but instead force sterilization on people classified as unfit to parent.
In 1974, Gary Nakao, another University of Utah researcher, interviewed people who had been sterilized for that reason. Nakao recalled to The Salt Lake Tribune that his dissertation showed that many of those who were sterilized did, in fact, have feelings about being operated upon.
One 34-year-old woman who was sterilized at the Utah State Training School was living with her husband in a trailer in southern Utah when Nakao interviewed her. She said she was embarrassed when neighbors asked her why they didn’t have children.
A man who received a vasectomy when he was 19 years old told Nakao his “blood turned colder than cold” when he was forced to have the operation, and a 17-year-old who was scheduled to be sterilized said he objected to the idea because he wanted to get married and have kids.
While the practice is no longer an institutionalized one, people with disabilities can still be forcibly sterilized in Utah if it is determined that they are not capable of giving informed consent, and a court gives permission.
“The state should apologize for what they did up until the mid-’70s in their institutions, but then also take some action and just end the practice altogether,” Nate Crippes, the public affairs supervising attorney at Utah’s Disability Law Center, told The Tribune. “There’s really no reason to be forcibly sterilizing people with disabilities.”
In its statement, the Department of Health and Human Services said there are now measures in place to protect people with disabilities.
“The current services we offer for those with intellectual disabilities focus on making sure a person can live their life as independently as possible — including having the option to marry or have a family if that is what a person wants,” the statement read.
The Tribune reported in August that since the start of 2017, Utah judges have heard 11 forced sterilization cases. Of those, nine were granted on the first try, and another was refiled after being denied, then later approved.
Following last year’s story, Crippes said the Disability Law Center approached a lawmaker about running a bill this legislative session to strike the law from code, but the legislation never materialized. The organization released a statement Wednesday calling on Utah to take action, and asking for an apology.
“There’s still a stigma around being a person with a disability,” Crippes said, continuing, “It still exists today. It’s something we’re constantly pushing back on, through legal means, but also trying to work with state officials and saying, let’s have equality for people with disabilities.”