Approximately 54 people who were forcibly sterilized in Utah’s eugenics program are still alive in 2023, according to a new analysis. Unlike other states, Utah is still yet to have expressed any regret at its abhorrent history of eugenics and hasn’t even officially acknowledged this dark chapter of the state’s past.
Utah was one of 32 states that passed legislation allowing people to be sterilized on the grounds of eugenics during the 20th century.
The programs were based on the pseudoscientific and disproven idea that the gene quality of the population could be refined by removing those considered to be “unfit.” This included the “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.”
In a new study, researchers from the University of Utah took a deep look at the people who became victim to the “very aggressive sterilization program” that took place in Utah during the past century.
In total, they found that at least 830 men, women, and children were coercively sterilized in Utah during the 20th century. By their calculations, an estimated 54 of them are still alive today. This likely includes 36 women and 18 men, with an average age of 78.
“Around 2018, though, I learned a number of states in America – Virginia, North Carolina, etc – were wrestling with the fact that sterilizations continued there well into the mid- and even late-20th century, which raised questions about who these victims were and whether any might still be alive,” James Tabery, lead study author and a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Utah, told IFLScience.
“I realized then that the eugenic history wasn’t confined to the distant past in Utah; it could very well still be existing in the form of the scars on the bodies of the survivors. And so the purpose of the project was to better understand who these victims were,” he added.
The state-sanctioned sterilizations began in 1925, peaked in Utah around the 1940s, and didn’t end until 1974. As per the study, these operations took place at the Utah State Hospital, Utah State Prison, and the Utah State Training School.
Through the study, the researchers also unearthed many tragic stories of people impacted by Utah’s eugenics program.
One case from 1928 involved a teenage girl who told her local religious leader that she’d been repeatedly raped by a family member. The man did not believe her and, instead, she was admitted to the Utah State Hospital where she was diagnosed as a “moron” and coercively sterilized.
After her release, the same religious leader admitted the girl was probably being sold as a sex worker by another family member.
Another case in the 1970s involved a teenage boy who learned he was scheduled for sterilization. He violently objected, motivated by his desire to have children, but eventually gave up after realizing there was nothing he could to do change his fate.
“There are quite a few examples of these patients who either don’t know that they have been – or will be – sterilized or don’t want it to happen, and yet it does. It really hits home how coercive the program was,” explained Tabery.
It’s worth remembering that Utah wasn’t the only place to carry out this repugnant experiment. All in all, it’s estimated that 60,000 people were sterilized across the US as part of its eugenics effort.
Many other countries – including Canada, Australia, the UK, and many other European nations – also had their own eugenics programs in the 20th century that victimized tens of thousands of people.
Some countries and states have started to acknowledge the wrongdoings of their past, with politicians and legislators issuing official apologies. Certain states, such as California, have even created compensation programs for the survivors of their programs.
Utah, however, has still not released an official apology.
The new study was published today in the medical journal The Lancet Regional Health - Americas.