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Eugenics and Coerced Sterilization

Birth Control & Eugenics

Early twentieth-century discussions of birth control were often linked to eugenics: the movement promoting the idea that the human race could be improved through selective breeding and the removal of the "unfit." By the 1930s, some academics, doctors, psychiatrists and politicians viewed the sterilization of "undesirables" as a solution to crime, poverty, and the growing costs of institutionalization. A wide variety of marginalized groups were targeted, including the poor, Aboriginal peoples, Métis, new immigrants, and "the feeble-minded," those with perceived intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses. More women than men experienced forced sterilization.

“And there is the woman who has ten children, and who is about to give birth to the eleventh, for whom she has no provision at all--not the least. Her husband has been out of work four years, and she says in her letter, ‘What would you say to me if I lay down on the job and took my own life?’

We cannot and we must not let them starve. We must care for them. But must we let them increase and multiply, and leave behind them a greater army of defectives for us and our children to care for?” 

MacMurchy, Helen. Sterilization? Birth Control? A Book for
Family Welfare and Safety. Toronto: MacMillan, 1934, 4. 

“A greater danger presents itself in the continuing high fertility rates of the mentally and morally defective. Fertility among such persons remains entirely unchecked. They are continuing to multiply, while the professional and more highly educated groups are falling far short of reproducing themselves. Obviously some solution must be found to this situation. Otherwise it will be only a matter of time until our average population quality is seriously affected and the institutional and other costs of caring for the subnormal and the deficient will exceed all reasonable bounds.” 

Hurd, W. Burton. “World Population Since 1750.”
In The Future of the Race: A Series of Radio Addresses. 
Toronto: The Eugenics Society of Canada, 1937, 15.

Alberta's Sexual Sterilization Act

In Alberta, the Sexual Sterilization Act was in effect from 1928 to 1972, with the peak of sterilizations occurring in the 1950s and 1960s. Initially, a person's consent was required, but in 1937 the act was amended and consent was no longer necessary from people who were judged "mentally defective." In total, 99% of the 4,785 cases brought before the Alberta Eugenics Board were approved for sterilization. In the end, some 2,834 people were sterilized.*

*Jana Grekul, Arvey Krahn, and Dave Odynak, " Sterilizing the “Feeble-Minded”: Eugenics in Alberta, Canada, 1929–1972,Journal of Historical Sociology, 17 (December 2004): 373.

Where did Coerced Sterilization take place?

Even though the Eugenics Society of Canada was formed in Ontario in 1930, the Canadian eugenics movement had the most momentum in the Western provinces with Alberta and British Columbia enacting sterilization laws in 1928 and 1933 respectively. Coercive sterilization, however, either legislated or non-legislated, took place throughout all of Canada.

The Sterilization of Leilani Muir

The Sterilization of Leilani Muir. DVD. Directed by Glynis Whiting. Montréal: National Film Board of Canada, 1996.

Sent to the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives (PTS) in Red Deer, Alberta, by her family, Leilani Muir appeared before the Eugenics Board in 1957 who authorized her sterilization based on her perceived low IQ and future discharge from the institution. In 1959, believing she was having an appendectomy, Leilani had her appendix and Fallopian tubes removed at the age of 14. She was never told she had been sterilized. Only in 1971, when she was trying to conceive, did she learn of the irreversible operation.

In 1987, Leilani began her efforts to sue the Alberta government, and in 1995, her case went to trial.  She was awarded $740,780 and her lawyers $230,000.* Leilani's case opened the door for over seven hundred forced-sterilization claims. In 1999, the Alberta government apologized and provided compensation to about 860 individuals.

*Erika Dyck. Facing Eugenics, Reproduction, Sterilization, and the Politics of Choice.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013, 197.

Key Government Documents

The Sexual Sterilization Act in Statutes of Alberta, 6th Legislative Assembly, 2nd Session, 1928.

An Act to amend The Sexual Act, in The Statutes of Alberta, 8th Legislative Assembly, 2nd Session, 1936-1937. 

Eugenics and Coerced Sterilization