Most closely associated with the Nazis and World War II atrocities, eugenics is sometimes described as a government-orchestrated breeding program, other times as a pseudo-science, and often as the first step leading to genocide. Less frequently it is recognized as a movement having links to the United States. But eugenics does have a history in this country, and Mark A. Largent tells that story by exploring one of its most disturbing aspects, the compulsory sterilization of more than 64,000 Americans. The book begins in the mid-nineteenth century, when American medical doctors began advocating the sterilization of citizens they deemed degenerate. By the turn of the twentieth century, physicians, biologists, and social scientists championed the cause, and lawmakers in two-thirds of the United States enacted laws that required the sterilization of various criminals, mental health patients, epileptics, and syphilitics. The movement lasted well into the latter half of the century, and Largent shows how even today the sentiments that motivated coerced sterilization persist as certain public figures advocate compulsory birth control - such as progesterone shots for male criminals or female welfare recipients - based on the same assumptions and motivations that had brought about thousands of coerced sterilizations decades ago.
Mark A. Largent is an assistant professor of science policy and the director of the Science, Technology, Environment, and Public Policy Specialization in James Madison College at Michigan State University in East Lansing.