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The 5th ELSI Congress - ELSIcon2022

ELSIcon2022 Flash: What Led to the Abolition of Iowa’s State Eugenics Program in 1977?


ELSIcon2022 • Flash • May 31, 2022

Bridget Easler, Breanna Rinker, Alexandra Minna Stern, Elyse Thulin, Nicole Novak

Iowa’s Board of Eugenics (BoE), which oversaw the sterilization of 1,910 people deemed “unfit” to reproduce, was active from 1934-1976. The state legislature abolished the BoE in 1977, but the sociopolitical dynamics that led to the dissolution are unclear. Through a research agreement with the State Archives of Iowa, our team transcribed and anonymized restricted sterilization case files and BoE meeting minutes from 1934-1976. We also reviewed legislation and newspaper articles relevant to the BoE from 1960-1980. We identified a range of actors, agencies, policies, and social movements that converged to close Iowa’s eugenics program. In the final decades of the BoE sterilization program, people targeted for sterilization were increasingly community-dwelling rather than institutionalized. Multiple factors led members of the BoE to question its purpose, including: increasing appreciation of the complexity of genetic heritability, deinstitutionalization, disagreement about the BoE’s role outside institutional settings, and expanded access to contraception resulting from Title X. This culminated in an internal resolution to dissolve the BoE and create decentralized institution-based sterilization programs. Concurrently, the newly formed State Developmental Disabilities Council appealed to state legislators to formally abolish the BoE. The 1960s and 70s brought significant shifts in Iowa’s sociopolitical environment relating to disability, institutionalization, and reproductive autonomy. The dialogue between state and community actors during this time illuminates our understanding of how late eugenic practices evolved, were perceived and resisted against, and ultimately how a eugenic organization was disbanded. This may inform ethical considerations within the present context of increasing genetic knowledge and technology.


Eugenic sterilization in the 20th century
Race, disability, and gender studies

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