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Arikia Millikan: A dark medical history

BY ARIKIA MILLIKAN

Published February 12, 2008

When the topic of reproductive rights comes up today, the debate is usually about contraceptives or abortions. But once upon a time in America, thousands of individuals were victimized by a different kind of government regulation - one that sought to rob them of their biological ability to reproduce.

Forced sexual sterilization was a reality in America, the state of Michigan and at this university from the turn of the 20th century until as late as 1970s. The involuntary surgeries were permanent, but their place in our collective consciousness is fading, and there are reparations that must be made before this sordid chapter in history is forgotten.

Historians estimate that between 60,000 and 70,000 forced sexual sterilizations were carried out during the eugenics movement in America. Inspired by the prospect of crafting a better human race through evolution - a concept that wasn't even fully understood at the time - people who called themselves scientists conjured plans to rid the gene pool of "unfit individuals." Throughout the state, they forced their victims to undergo surgeries that left them physically unable to produce children.

These surgeries, which involved severing the ducts through which sperm travel or severing or removing the fallopian tubes through which eggs, occurred with little to no regard for the victims' consent. They would be considered highly unethical by today's medical standards. Initially, the sterilizations were meant for the criminally insane housed in state prisons and mental institutions. But determined eugenicists broadened the criteria to include the sterilization of the "feeble-minded." Soon, this state-mandated process became a way for the government to eliminate the potential offspring of those it deemed a problem, including people who were poor, sexually deviant or members of a racial minority group.

A large portion of these surgeries took place in Michigan. This state was inextricably involved, ranking fourth in the procedures among the 33 states that adopted sterilization legislation. It forced sterilization upon at least 3,786 residents - many of them of Native American descent.

Michigan set itself apart from the crowd in 1897 when it became the first state to propose legislation for forced sterilization. The legislation was rejected, but the eugenics movement continued to grow in popularity, especially in the fields of science and medicine. In fact, the dean of the University's medical school, Victor Vaughan, was a vocal supporter. Vaughan believed that sterilizing poor people would help them and the human race. When forced sterilization became Michigan law in 1913, Vaughan was serving on the State Board of Health. Vaughan is now honored in the Medical School's Hall of Honor, and a School of Public Health building is named after him.

But Vaughan wasn't the only connection between the University and eugenics. The University is harboring a deep, dark secret about the past, buried under the names of some of its most respected forefathers. After Clarence Cook Little resigned from his position as University president in 1929, he went on to become the president of the American Eugenics Society. Every time a student boards a bus from its central location or walks inside the C.C. Little Science Building, his name is innocently recalled.

But perhaps the most alarming detail about our beloved school is that forced sterilization procedures were actually performed by University employees at the University hospital.

The history of the U.S. eugenics movement is largely removed from the collective consciousness of Americans. While there is a large emphasis in public education about the forced sterilization in Germany in conjunction with the Holocaust, there is rarely ever mention of the movement that went on in our own backyards. But with the horrors that eugenics brought came important lessons that we cannot afford to forget.

Out of all the states that were responsible for mass forced sterilizations, Michigan is the only state that has yet to issue an apology. It started here and it is long overdue that it ends here with a formal apology to all the victims of this atrocious procedure from Gov. Jennifer Granholm on behalf of the state and from Mary Sue Coleman on behalf of the University.

Until this happens, every time you catch a bus at C.C. Little or hear Victor Vaughan's name, remember what they actually stood for and what this University condoned.

Arikia Millikan is a Daily associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at arikia@umich.edu.