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The 5th ELSI Congress - ELSIcon2022

ELSIcon2022 Flash: How Did the Biodeterministic View of Criminality Influence Coercive Sterilization in the State of Iowa from 1934 to 1976?


ELSIcon2022 • Flash • May 31, 2022

Darian Thompson, Nina Vo, Stella Murphy, Juan Gudino, Nicole Novak

At the end of the 19th century in the U.S., eugenic “science” posited that criminal behavior was genetically heritable. This fallacy propagated the notion that criminals are conceived, negating the complex influences of one’s environment. Consequently, the Iowa Board of Eugenics specified that “habitual criminals” could be sterilized under the state’s eugenics law. A 1965 review of state sterilization laws by eugenics scholar Julius Paul claimed that no criminals had been sterilized under Iowa’s sterilization law. This analysis uses restricted archival records to consider the treatment of criminalized people under Iowa’s state eugenics program.

Through an agreement with the State Archives of Iowa, our team obtained access to 2,185 sterilization case files. Researchers transcribed a subset of n=225 patient files, including social histories, psychological evaluations, and other forms of documentation—redacting all identifying information. A team is currently analyzing a subset of cases from 1934-1976 mentioning criminality or law enforcement using qualitative coding to identify themes. While criminality was rarely the primary justification for sterilization by the Iowa Board of Eugenics, patient histories often included both patient and familial criminal history, indicating that criminality was viewed through a lens of biodeterminism by the Iowa Board of Eugenics. Furthermore, patients were referred to the Board of Eugenics through a variety of institutional mechanisms, including interactions with law enforcement. This analysis adds new insight into ways the Iowa Board of Eugenics utilized the institutions of criminalization to categorize individuals as “unfit” to justify the sterilization of persons.


Eugenic sterilization in the 20th century
reproductive genetics

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