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“A Human Being, and Not a Mere Social Factor”: Catholic Strategies for Dealing with Sterilization Statutes in the 1920s

  • Sharon M. Leon (a1)


In the wake of the 1927 landmark Supreme Court decision in the Buck v. Bell case, which affirmed the constitutionality of laws authorizing the compulsory sterilization of so-called “feeble-minded” residents of state institutions, moral theologian and priest John A. Ryan took up his pen to address the issue of sterilization from a Catholics perspective. In the resulting pamphlet, Human Sterilization, Ryan argued that eugenic sterilization measures were not only unscientific and bad social policy, but that the Buck decision in its articulation of civil rights represented a clear departure from the understanding of natural rights in Catholic moral teaching. The production of this text was the first piece of literature published by the National Catholic Welfare Conference that attempted to mobilize Catholic citizens throughout the United States in active opposition to eugenic sterilizahon laws as they came before the state legislatures.



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1. Ryan, John A., Human Sterilization (Washington, D.C.: National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1927), foreword, 5. A copy is located in the National Catholic Welfare Conference Papers (henceforth NCWC Papers), (Collection 10) housed in the Archives of the Catholic University of America (henceforth ACUA).

2. Laughlin, Harry H., The Legal Status of Eugenical Sterilization (Chicago: Eugenics Associate of the Psychopathic Laboratory of the Municipal Court of Chicago, 1929), 7.

3. Reilly, Philip R., The Surgical Solution: A History of Involuntary Sterilization in the United States (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 33, 3940.

4. Laughlin, ,The Legal Status of Eugenical Sterilization, 5759. In 1927, the list of states with valid laws included California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin. The southern states were late to warm to the idea of eugenic sterilization legislation. Though laws were considered in Louisiana during the mid 1920s, other southern states debated the matter through the 1930s and well into the 1940s. See Larson, Edward J., Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

5. Kevles, Daniel J., In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), 119, 4156, 6465.

6. Mehler, Barry, “A History of the American Eugenics Society” (Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois, 1988), 3680.

7. Noll, Steven, Feeble-Minded in Our Midst: Institutions for the Mentally Retarded in the South, 1900–1940 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 14.

8. Goddard, Henry H., The Kallikak Family, A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness (New York: Macmillan, 1912), and Feeble-Mindedness: Its Causes and Consequences (New York: Macmillan, 1914).

9. Stephen Jay Gould has effectively explored and debunked Goddard's data and conclusions from the Kallikak study, noting that by the late 1920s Goddard had recanted his stance on feeble-mindedness being incurable, uneducable, or necessitating institution-alization. Gould, Stephen Jay, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: W. W. Norton, 1981), 158–74. For more on family studies, see Rafter, Nicole Hahn, ed., White Trash: The Eugenic Family, 1877–1919 (Boston, Mass.: Northeastern University Press, 1986).

10. Laughlin, Harry H., Eugenical Sterilization in the United States (Chicago: Psychopathic Laboratory of the Municipal Court of Chicago, 1922), and Eugenical Sterilization: 1926; Historical, Legal, and Statistical Review of Eugenical Sterilization in the United States (New Haven, Conn.: The American Eugenics Society, 1926), 23.

11. The Catholic populations in those states are as follows: New York (3.1 million), Pennsylvania (2.1 million), Massachusetts (1.6 million), Illinois (1.3 million), New Jersey (1 million), and Ohio (1 million). The information on the ratio of Catholics to the total population of the states was calculated using data from the 1920 U.S. Census, the 1930 U.S. Census, and the Census of Religious Bodies: 1926, Volume II (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1929), 1256.

12. “The Morality and Lawfulness of Vasectomy,” American Ecclesiastical Review (henceforth AER) 44 (May 1911): 562–63. Quote from 563.

13. Ibid., 563–65. The exchange continued for a number of issues, but the participants failed to reach a consensus. In addition to the work of the moral theologians, Dr. Austin O'Malley submitted a piece that clarified the physical aspects of the operation and offered his own reading of the morality question. See O'Malley, Austin, “Vasectomy in Defectives,” AER 44 (06 1911): 684705; Anonymous, “The Morality and the Lawfulness of Vasectomy,” AER 45 (July 1911): 7177; Donovan, Steven M., “Summing up the Discussion on Vasectomy,” AER 45 (09 1911): 313–19; Labouré, Theodore, “One Last Remark on Vasectomy,” AER 45 (09 1911): 355–59; “P. Schmitt on the Gravity of the Mutilation Involved in Vasectomy,” AER 45 (09 1911): 360–62.

14. Ryan, John A., “Family Limitation,” reprinted in Family Limitation and The Church and Birth Control (New York: Paulist, 1916), 5.

15. Ryan, , “The Church and Birth Control,” reprinted in Family Limitation and The Church and Birth Control (New York: Paulist, 1916), 1619.

16. The legislative activity in New Jersey in 1926 reflected a resurgence of interest in the eugenic benefits of sterilization. In 1911 the state legislature passed and then Governor and future president, Woodrow Wilson, signed a statute that provided for the sterilization of inmates of state reformatories and charitable or penal institutions. The law targeted persons who, in the evaluation of a state board of examiners, had conditions that were unlikely to improve, thus making their reproduction inadvisable. Though there were five state institutions that qualified for sterilizing inmates under the law, the statute faced a constitutional challenge before any operations were done. On November 18, 1913 the New Jersey State Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. By the middle of the 1920s the eugenic sterilization lobby had regained its momentum and again encouraged the state legislature to pass another sterilization statute. See Laughlin, Harry H., Eugenical Sterilization in the United States, 10, 80, and 174.

17. Founded in 1920, the National Council of Catholic Women was an outgrowth of the National Catholic War Council's Committee on Women's Activities. Under the auspices of the Welfare Conference's Department of Lay Organizations, which was directed by Cleveland Bishop Joseph Schrembs, the NCCW coordinated and connected the variety of laywomen's societies and organizations throughout the country. The NCCW succeeded in sustaining a significant and vibrant connection among women's groups around the country. During the decades between its founding and World War II, the Council took an active role in opposing the Church's persecution in Mexico; opposing the Sheppard-Towner Act; fighting the distribution of contraception and contraceptive information; participating in immigrant Americanization and education work; establishing community houses; and pursuing social justice causes and family issues. In addition to working on these varied issues, beginning in 1921, the NCCW sponsored the National Catholic School of Social Service, which trained a legion of Catholic social workers. Such activities made the women of the NCCW integral participants in the Catholic effort to thwart eugenic sterilization statutes. See O'Halloran, Ruth, “Organized Catholic Laywomen: The National Council of Catholic Women, 1920–1995” (Ph.D. diss., Catholic University of America, 1995), chapters 1–3.

18. The information on the ratio of Catholics to the total population of the states was calculated using data from the 1920 U.S. Census, the 1930 U.S. Census, and the Census of Religious Bodies: 1926, Volume II, 1256. The New Jersey total population in 1926 was approximately 3.76 million persons, and the Catholic population that year was 1.06 million persons.

19. Mary G. Hawks to John J. Burke, 6 February 1926, NCWC Papers (Collection 121).

20. Burke to Hawks, 12 February 1926, NCWC Papers (Collection 121).

21. Burke to Rev. William P. Crosby, 2 February 1927, NCWC Papers (Collection 121D).

22. “State Legislatures Discuss Anti-Evolution Measures Propose Marriage Reforms,” (NCWC News Service) The Tidings (February 25, 1927): 6; “State Legislatures Discuss Bills of Interest to Catholics,” (NCWC News Service) The Tidings (March 4, 1927): 7; “Quantity Production Marks Output in Legislatures of Many States,” The Tidings (March 25, 1927): 4; “State Legislatures Struggle with Several Eugenic Measures,” (NCWC News Service) The Tidings (April 22, 1927): 13.

23. The best account of nativism in the U.S. continues to be Higham, John, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1955). The tendency for non-Catholics to question the fitness of Catholics to participate in liberal democracy is long-standing and deftly examined by McGreevy, John T. in Catholicism and American Freedom: a History (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003).

24. Ryan, John A., The State and The Church (Washington, D.C.: NCWC, 1922), 4249.

25. See for example, Shelley, Thomas J., “The Oregon School Case and the National Catholics Welfare Conference,” Catholic Historical Review 75:3 (1989): 439–57; and Tobin-Schlesinger, Kathleen, “Population and Power: the Religious Debate over Contraception, 1916–1936” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1994).

26. Ryan, , The State and The Church, 207.

27. Ibid., 276–77.

28. National Council of Men, Catholic, Special Bulletin on Ohio Sterilization and Marriage License Bills, (Washington, D.C.: National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1927), 12, located in NCWC Papers (Collection 121D).

29. Charles F. Dolle to Bishop Joseph Schrembs, 31 March 1927, Joseph Schrembs Papers, Archives Diocese of Cleveland (henceforth Schrembs Papers, ADC).

30. Bishop Schrembs correspondence with Dolle about the Ohio legislation and the subsequent production of the “Information Bulletin” provided a significant link between the national and the local structures of U.S. Catholicism. Bishop Schrembs was Chairman of the Department of Lay Organizations, which oversaw the NCCM and monitored Dolle's administration of the day-to-day affairs of the organization. Through the Department of Lay Organization Schrembs had guided the foundation and development of both the National Council of Catholic Men and the National Council of Catholic Women to foster lay activism in local dioceses around the country. While the NCCW developed a vibrant national organization, the NCCM functioned more directly under Schrembs's control. The bishop envisioned the organization as being deeply involved with social issues, such as the fight against birth control, the campaign for parochial schools, the care of immigrants, and the education of Catholic men on social and moral teaching. Opposing sterilization legislation provided an opportunity for Catholics to act on the social justice mission embodied in their organizations and to fulfill a vision of lay activism that Schrembs had advocated since the early years of the NCWC. Thus, the situation in Ohio allowed him to exercise his authority as spokesperson for the Catholics within the Diocese of Cleveland and to oversee the involvement of the NCCM in the hopes of providing materials to educate the laity about the variety of reasons for opposing eugenic policy initiatives. See Poluse, Martin Frank, “Archbishop Joseph Schrembs and the Twentieth Century Catholic Church in Cleveland, 1921–1945” (Ph.D. diss., Kent State University, 1991), 250–55.

31. Special Bulletin, 1–2, NCWC Papers (Collection 121D).

32. Dolle to Schrembs, 31 March 1927, Schrembs Papers, ADC; and Special Bulletin.

33. The Bulletin drew from the work of Dr. William E. Fernald, former superintendent of the Massachusetts School for Feebleminded, and Dr. George K. Pratt, Assistant to the Medical Director of the National Committee for Mental Health. Femald published the first medical critique of eugenics in 1919, based on following the lives of 646 nonsterilized feeble-minded persons who had been discharged from a state institution in Massachusetts. They exhibited a low marriage rate and a low birth rate, contrary to the claims of sterilization advocates. Fernald argued that eugenicists mistook a high birthrate among the poor and uneducated for that of the mentally challenged. Reilly, , The Surgical Solution, 122.

34. Special Bulletin, 9.

35. Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, in The Papal Encyclicals in Their Historical Context, ed. Anne, Fremantle (New York: Mentor Books, 1956), 171–72.

36. Handwritten note on Dolle to Schrembs, 31 March 1927; McFadden to Ryan, telegram sent to members of the Health Committee, no date; and telegram to John A. Hadden, State House, 8 April 1927, Schrembs Papers, ADC.

37. McNicholas's statement to Ohio State Legislature, quoted in “State Legislatures Struggle with Several Eugenic Measures,” Tidings (April 22, 1927): 13.

38. Quoted in “Sterilization Bill is Killed,” Catholic Universe Bulletin (April 15, 1927): 1.

39. Kevles, , In the Name of Eugenics, 113–47, and Reilly, , The Surgical Solution, 111–27.

40. “Sterilization Bill is Killed,” Catholic Universe Bulletin (April 15, 1927): 1.

41. Though the details of Carrie's admission to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded were not widely known at the time of the landmark Supreme Court case, J. David Smith, an historian at Lynchburg College, and K. Ray Nelson, former director of the Central Virginia Training Center, unearthed Carrie's story and brought it to the public in a moving account published in 1989 called simply The Sterilization of Carrie Buck. The details of Carrie Buck's story up to the Supreme Court decision have been taken from this text. Smith, J. David and Nelson, K. Ray, The Sterilization of Carrie Buck (Far Hills, N.J.: New Horizon, 1989). See also Reilly, , The Surgical Solution, 8687.

42. Smith, and Nelson, , The Sterilization of Carrie Buck, 3233.

43. During Gordon's period of deliberation Priddy died of Hodgkin's disease. His assistant, Dr. J. H. Bell, assumed his position as head of the Virginia Colony.

44. Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200; 47 Sup. Ct. 584 (May 2, 1927), 585.

45. Ward, Patrick J., “Sterilization of Mental Defectives in the State of Virginia,” 6 May 1927; and Ward to Burke, Memo regarding sterilization in Virginia, 7 May 1927, NCWC Papers (Collection 121D).

46. The information on the ratio of Catholics to the total population of the states was calculated using data from the 1920 11.5. Census, the 1930 U.S. Census, and the Census of Religious Bodies: 1926, Volume II, 1256. For a summary of the religious history of the Commonweal of Virginia, see Daniel, W. Harrison, “Virginia,” in Religion in the Southern States, ed. Hill, Samuel S. (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1983), 335–62.

50. Francis, S.Betten, S.J.Reilly, , The Surgical Solution, 98.

51. Dolle to Burke, 28 May 1927, and Burke memo, 3 June 1927, NCWC Papers (Collection 121D).

52. Dolle to Burke, 8 June 1927, NCWC Papers (Collection 121D), and “Petition for Rehearing and Argument” for Buck v. Bell, NCWC Papers (121).

53. Neither Philip Reilly's The Surgical Solution nor Smith and Nelson's The Sterilization of Carrie Buck, the two most full historical accounts of the Buck v. Bell case, include any information about the petition for rehearing.

54. The questions raised about whether or not a Catholic was fit to hold executive office that accompanied Al Smith's campaign for the Presidency prompted John Ryan to draft another text explaining the Catholic teachings on church and state: Ryan, John A., The Catholic Church and the Citizen (New York: MacMillan, 1928).

55. “Brush Foundation Deems Humans Barnyard Animals, Bishop Says,” Catholic Universe Bulletin (June 22, 1928): 1, and “Eugenics: True and False,” Catholic Universe Bulletin (July 6, 1928): 12.

56. Ryan, , Human Sterilization, foreword, 5.

57. Burke memo to self, 30 October 1928, and Burke to Ward, 24 January 1929, NCWC Papers (Collection 121).

58. Raymond A. McGowan to Burke, 18 February 1929, NCWC Papers (Collection 121D).

59. Ward to Burke, re: “EVIL RESULTS OF STERILIZATION,” 5 April 1929, NCWC Papers (Collection 121D).

60. Ibid.

61. Hauber, Ulrich A., Inheritance of Mental Defect (Washington, D.C.: National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1930).

62. Bernstein, Charles M.D., Social Care of the Mentally Deficient (Washington, D.C.: National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1930).

63. Montavon, William F., Eugenic Sterilization in the Laws of the States (Washington, D.C.: National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1930).

64. “Study Clubs are Urged by D.C.C.W.,” Catholic Universe Bulletin (June 21, 1929): 8, and “Why Study Clubs?” Catholic Universe Bulletin (August 8, 1930): 12.

65. Casti Connubii's treatment of eugenics was based on the work of German Jesuit Francis Hurth and was a response to the eugenics ideologies being popularized in the United States and Western Europe during the early decades of the twentieth century. See Noonan, John T., Contraception: a History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965), 511–12.

66. Casti Connubii, paragraph 71. Casti Connubii: Encyclical of Pope Pius XI On Christian Marriage, December 31, 1930, 208,” in The Papal Encyclicals, 1903–1939, ed. Claudia, Carlen (Raleigh, N.C.: Pierian, 1990), 391414. Quote from 402.

67. Ryan, John A., Moral Aspects of Sterilization (Washington, D.C.: National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1930), 6, 2122.

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