How Sonoma County became the dark center of America’s forced sterilization movement

American eugenics – embodied by the creepy-named Human Betterment Foundation, a Pasadena-based think tank – believed they could make the world a better place by using scientific principles to influence the gene pool. They viewed sterilization as the most effective way to do this.

Starting in Indiana in 1907, 32 states passed mandatory sterilization laws, resulting in more than 60,000 institutional operations between 1909 and 1957, according to researchers at the University of Vermont.

The movement attracted some of the most influential thinkers of the time, including former President Theodore Roosevelt, who supported racial hierarchies and sterilization; inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who emphasized the need to prevent the immigration of “unwanted ethnic elements”; and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, now hailed as a reproductive rights heroine.

Horticultural pioneer Luther Burbank, the man who put Santa Rosa on the map, was also an adherent.

“Suppose we mix two poisonous plants and make a third even more virulent, a degenerate plant, and let their evil descendants drift to multiply on earth, aren’t we separate enemies of the race?” Burbank wrote in a 1906 treatise titled “The Training of the Human Race”. “What then will we say about two people with absolutely definite physical disabilities who are allowed to marry and raise children? It is a crime against the state. “

Eugenics also enjoyed popular appeal. A 1917 Hollywood release titled “The Black Stork” featured Dr. Harry J. Haiselden, a Chicago doctor who made headlines by refusing to operate on children with birth defects, arguing instead to let them die. . Haiselden wrote the screenplay and performed it himself.

In the silent film, he urges a “mismatched” couple not to procreate. They ignore his advice and their baby is born with defects. The child dies and levitates in heaven, in the arms of Jesus who await him.

An advertisement for the film read “Kill the defective, save the nation and see ‘The Black Stork'”.

The German Nazi Party embraced the idea and eventually took eugenics to its limits by murdering an estimated 6 million Jews, 1.8 million non-Jewish Poles, 500,000 Roma, 312,000 Serbian citizens, 1,900 Jehovah’s Witnesses , 70,000 petty criminals and an unknown number of homosexual non-combatants.

Even after the end of World War II and the horrified world retreat when Allied forces exposed the malicious excesses of the Nazi death camps, Sonoma State Home continued. A thousand more people were said to be sterilized there before stricter consent requirements effectively stopped the practice in 1952.

Americans can now find comfort in creating a firewall between our local eugenics movement and Hitler’s Germany. In truth, it didn’t look that different at times.

At the height of the fervor, one of the founders of the Human Betterment Foundation, Paul Popenoe, wrote to the other, CL Gosney, to recount an incident at Mendocino State Hospital in Ukiah. While organizing a convention of the Association of Railway Surgeons, hospital officials invited the association’s president to sterilize two inmates as a “special honor”.

“Both women died in agony a few days later,” Popenoe wrote. “The autopsy showed that instead of tying the fallopian tubes, the surgeon tied up the ureters so that they both died of kidney poisoning from inability to urinate.”

Every 2.2 days for 33 years

Rick McAleese knows how much the reputation of Fred O. Butler has been tarnished over the years. It just doesn’t match the personal memories he keeps of his grandfather.

Butler was born in a log cabin in Russiaville, Indiana, and he and his wife Tilly were real salts of the earth, McAleese said. Butlers once stumbled upon ripe blackberries on the vine while on vacation. Grandma Tilly’s solution was to turn on the stove and put the canned fruit right there in their motel room.

Butler’s devotion to eugenics? McAleese had no window on it. “It’s not like he came over to mom and dad and said, ‘OK, I’m sterilizing,'” McAleese told The Press Democrat. “For such a young child, I probably didn’t know.”

Reproductive control was not an idea that slowly came to Fred Butler during his 31 years as a medical superintendent at Sonoma State Home. He brought it to his first board meeting, as he reviewed the immediate needs of the institution.

About Victoria Rothstein

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