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Reinventing Eugenics: Reproductive Choice and Law Reform after World War II

Cardozo Journal of Law & Gender, Vol. 14, p. 319, 2008

Saint Louis University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2008-22

29 Pages Posted: 21 Jul 2010 Last revised: 25 Jul 2010

Mary Ziegler

Florida State University - College of Law

Date Written: 2008


When the United States Supreme Court decided Skinner v. United States, some observers saw the case as the beginning of the end of the movement for eugenic legal reform]The term eugenic, coined in 1883 by the British geneticist Francis Galton, described a belief that law could be used to improve the quality of the population. When the Court had last considered a Due Process or Equal Protection challenge to compulsory eugenic sterilization law in 1927, only one justice dissented from the Court's decision to uphold the statute. Only fifteen years after the Buck Court stated that “three generations of imbeciles are enough,” the Skinner Court described the right to reproduce as “one of the basic civil rights of man.”

Many scholars have seen this apparently dramatic shift in the Court's position as evidence of the influence of World War II on American reproductive law. During the war, widespread revulsion to the Nazi political program provoked serious criticism of American sterilization laws similar to those enforced in Germany. As a result of this disapproval, the eugenic reform movement is seen to have no longer influenced American reproductive law after the War.

A close examination of pro-eugenic organizations after the War tells a significantly different story. Rather than disappearing from the political scene, these organizations appear to have transformed both themselves and the very idea of eugenic law. World War II required eugenic laws, at least in appearance, to respect some form of reproductive choice.

The new emphasis on choice forced pro-eugenic organizations to transform their strategies and rhetoric. Because eugenic legal theory had been criticized for being political rather than scientific, some pro-eugenic organizations began, in the 1950s, to renounce lobbying in order to focus on funding research that demonstrated the benefits of improving the “quality” of the population. The leaders of other organizations identified less controversial programs of legal reform that they believed would have the same effects as would an openly eugenic program. Between 1950 and 1966, pro-eugenic organizations increasingly saw population control reform as an ideal program of this sort. The platform that resulted from these changes appeared to better account for individual choice but was also more openly racist than earlier eugenic legal reform projects had been.

Perhaps most importantly, the new reform efforts offered their own definitions of reproductive choice. Many people thought to be socially inadequate were seen as unable to make the right reproductive decisions themselves, and pro-eugenic organizations advised their volunteers to omit or favorably characterize the facts about birth control or sterilization and to take advantage of emotional or physical weakness in order to assure that the “right choice” was made.

Keywords: Legal History, Gender, Sexuality and Law, Eugenics, Reproductive Health Law

Suggested Citation

Ziegler, Mary, Reinventing Eugenics: Reproductive Choice and Law Reform after World War II (2008). Cardozo Journal of Law & Gender, Vol. 14, p. 319, 2008; Saint Louis University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2008-22. Available at SSRN:

Mary Ziegler (Contact Author)

Florida State University - College of Law ( email )

425 W. Jefferson Street
Tallahassee, FL 32306
United States

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