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What is Compulsory Sterilization?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 17, 2024
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Compulsory sterilization is a government policy which mandates the sterilization of certain individuals under specific conditions. Historically, several nations have had compulsory sterilization laws on the books as part of a negative eugenics program, designed to ensure that certain people do not contribute to the gene pool. When mandatory sterilization is practiced systematically against a particular group, it is considered to be a crime against humanity.

Eugenics is a field of study which suggests that it is possible to improve the human race through selective breeding. Just as when animals are bred, selective breeding of humans involves selecting specific individuals for their positive traits and encouraging them to have children, and dissuading childbearing among individuals who are perceived as undesirable. When eugenics involves an active promotion of traits which are deemed to be beneficial, it is known as positive eugenics. Negative eugenics involves restricting entrance to the gene pool.

Most compulsory sterilization laws mandated sterilization for people like the residents of mental institutions, repeat criminal offenders, people who were viewed as “immoral,” and people with disabilities. Often, such laws also focused on the lower classes, out of the belief that people living in poverty would have a negative effect on the human gene pool. Under a mandatory sterilization law, men and women could be sterilized without consent, and sometimes without their knowledge; for example, a woman going in for a routine surgery might be subjected to a tubal ligation at the same time.

The United States, India, China, Germany, and Sweden all practiced mandatory sterilization at some point in history, among many other nations. Germany is perhaps most infamous for its compulsory sterilization policies, which were designed to maintain the purity of the so-called Aryan Race. In some cases, mandatory sterilization legislation was struck from the books as recently as 1990, although the practice had been largely abolished long before.

Compulsory sterilization is usually accomplished through surgical means, but it can also take the form of chemical castration, which inhibits sex drive as well as preventing reproduction. Both surgical and chemical methods applied without consent are generally viewed as a violation of human rights around the world, although some nations support the use of chemical castration for sex offenders.

In addition to compulsory sterilization, it is also possible to find coerced sterilization. In the case of coerced sterilization, someone is not forced outright to be sterilized, but he or she is given little choice. India and China have both been accused of using coerced sterilization as a method of population control, and as a political tool to target ethnic and religious minorities.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Lostnfound — On Mar 24, 2014

It's an awful thought that compulsory sterilization still exists, but it does. The U.S. wasn't completely in step with eugenics as much as the desire to help eliminate "defective" people, like those with Down Syndrome or similar. It wasn't an attempt to breed for certain characteristics, but rather to eliminate a perceived defect. The results were the same, however, and led to serious abuses of the system.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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