Eugenics on college campuses tended to manifest as what Francis Galton termed ‘positive eugenics’ – attempts to ensure the best bred with the best. The influence of eugenics on government policies and state laws tended to lead to ‘negative eugenics’ – mechanisms to keep the so-called unfit from breeding. All of the policies outlined below constituted ‘negative eugenics.’ In many ways, however, positive and negative eugenics were different sides of the same coin: each entailed making value judgements about who should and who should not have children.

Sterilization Laws

In 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of coerced sterilization in the case of “Buck v. Bell.” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote: “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Sterilization laws varied depending on the state. They were defended on a range of grounds, from eugenic-based concerns regarding hereditary mental illness to the belief that sterilization improved the health of some patients in mental health institutions. California performed the most sterilizations (about 20,000) between 1907 and 1964, primarily of patients at institutions for the “mentally ill” and “mentally deficient.”
At least 60,000 Americans were sterilized according to official records. The full number is unknown. Hysterectomies and ovariectomies were not recorded in official sterilization tallies, for example, although commonly performed at mental health institutions. In the pedigree, N = normal, F = feebleminded, d. inf = died in infancy. Eugenic-based sterilization were based on the premise that one could determine, based on pedigree-tracing, whether “unfit” traits were hereditary. 

Anti-Immigration laws

In 1924 the Eugenics Record Office’s Harry Laughlin presented ‘biological’ arguments in favor of strict immigration laws. He argued that recent immigrants had high levels of ‘social inadequacy,’ (including ‘feeblemindedness’, ‘moral turpitude’, insanity, criminality, and dependency).
At the hearings, biologist Herbert Spencer Jennings disputed Laughlin’s claim that immigrants from southern and eastern Europe had lower IQs, but did not question the underlying assumption of eugenic thinking, namely that experts could and should make determinations about who counted as ‘fit’ versus ‘unfit.’(Image from Wikimedia Commons)
The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act (Senator Johnson of Washington State was one of the main sponsors of the bill) established a quota based on the number of people from particular countries who lived in the U.S. in 1890, prior to large-scale immigration from populations deemed “unfit.” (Image from Wikimedia Commons)
This is a 1921 Political Cartoon referencing debates over whether to establish a quota-based immigration system.”It may be presumed,” wrote a proponent of ‘The Nordic Ideal,’ “that the Immigration laws as now passed are only the first step to still more definite laws dealing with race and eugenics.” (Hand F.K. Gunther, The Racial Elements of European History, NY: Dutton and Company, 1927). 

Anti-Miscegenation Laws

Map of U.S. Anti-Miscegenation Laws

Early anti-miscegenation laws were often defended on biblical grounds, but during the eugenics movement opponents of ‘race-mixing’ defended these laws as rooted in science and biology. Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, for example, held that ‘genetic disharmonies’ resulted from inter-racial marriages. These laws assumed such things as ‘pure races’ existed and could be defined, an assumption that population geneticists – and, earlier, Charles Darwin – had abandoned by this time.

Fighting the “Race-Mixing” Laws

Opposition to race-mixing laws arose on both scientific and moral grounds. Population geneticists like Theodosius Dobzhansky and anthropologists like Ruth Benedict and Franz Boas argued that the laws depended upon unscientific descriptions of races as ‘ideal types’ rather than as populations that are (according to how population geneticists used the word ‘race’), in constant flux. Meanwhile, civil rights activists like founding member of the Tacoma NAACP Nettie Craig Asberry (1865-1958) organized against the passage of race-mixing laws in Washington State. Asberry later recalled how, when anti-miscegenation laws were proposed in 1916, ‘We had an underground worker there who let us know and overnight we got together a caravan of several cars of people of several races, whites, colored, Filipinos, and others. We descended on the powerful rules committee as a surprise and defeated the measure.’ Anti-miscegenation laws remained on the books in other states until declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Loving vs. Virginia (1967).

Image from Colored Women’s Federation of Washington and Jurisdiction Club Journal, 1922-1925, Tacoma, ca. 1925 (approval to use pending: Washington State Historical Society (0006_S92-2-47)

Washington State Eugenics Laws

1909 ~ Washington passes a coerced sterilization law, ‘The Law for the Prevention of Procreation,’ which held a board of experts could decide to sterilize ‘habitual criminals.’
1913 ~ Founding member of the Tacoma NAACP Nettie Craig Asberry (1865-1958) prevents an anti-race mixing bill from passing. In contrast to most states, Washington never had a 20th-century anti-race mixing law on the books (subsequent attempts made in the 1930s were defeated by civil rights coalitions).
1921 ~ New Sterilization Law passed. In contrast to the 1909 law, this law allowed the coerced sterilization of the ‘feebleminded, insane, epileptic, habitual criminals, moral degenerates, and sexual perverts’ in State institutions.
1924 ~ Washington State senator Albert Johnson successfully sponsors the Immigration Act of 1924, which limited immigration from ‘undesirable’ populations on eugenic grounds.
1942 ~ The 1921 Sterilization Law is declared unconstitutional on the grounds patients didn’t have effective means of appeal. By this point, at least 684 Washingtonians had been sterilized under the 1921 statute. Most were women who had been deemed ‘mentally ill’ or ‘mentally deficient.’ In 1947 Puget Sound biology student James Legg, mentored by James Slater, criticized this change in legislation in his independent study thesis ‘Eugenical Sterilization.’