December 2nd, 1922

Eugenicist Henry Laughlin Publishes "Model Sterilization Law"

In the early 20th century, state legislatures began passing sterilization laws authorizing the compulsory sterilization of men and women considered less desirable citizens based on factors such as economic status, mental or physical ability, and race. By 1914, a dozen states had passed sterilization laws, but many did not survive constitutional challenges. In December 1922, after extensive investigation into state sterilization laws and their reception in state courts, Harry Laughlin, biologist and co-founder of the American Eugenics Society, published a model sterilization law in his study, Eugenical Sterilization in the United States.

The model law was designed to aid lawmakers in developing more effective and “constitutionally acceptable” sterilization laws in their jurisdictions. Laughlin’s model law passed the ultimate test in 1927, when the United States Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s compulsory sterilization law in Buck v. Bell. Virginia's law had been developed using Laughlin’s model as a blueprint; 18 states eventually passed similar statutes.

After the publication of Laughlin’s model law and the Court’s decision in Buck, the rate of sterilization in the United States soared. Prior to the mid-1920s, approximately 3000 Americans had been forcibly sterilized; by 1938, the number had increased to nearly 30,000; and at least 65,000 had been forcibly sterilized by the 1970s. Laughlin’s model law was influential abroad as well. In 1933, the German government led by Adolf Hitler used Laughlin’s model to draft its own sterilization law, which authorized the forced sterilization of 80,000 “un-fit” persons within a year of its passage and 300,000 by the start of World War II.