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Fighting for Their Future: Youth Resistance to Michigan's Eugenics Laws, 1910s-1940s

Thu, November 8, 12:00 to 1:45pm, Westin Peachtree, Floor: Seventh, Augusta 3 (Seventh)


"1,000 Detroit Youths Sterilized by Trickery" screamed a newspaper headline on January 13, 1934. It was the latest in a string of accusations by Michigan's eugenic victims that their families had been tricked by doctors and social workers into signing sterilization consent forms. Family members, usually parents who were illiterate or were non-English speakers, signed forms that they were told would release their children from the institutions, not realizing that sterilization was part of the condition of release.

Michigan's first eugenic sterilization law passed in 1913, resulting in only one sterilization. The intended second victim, Nora Reynolds, resisted. Reynolds had been labeled feeble-minded and committed to the Michigan Home and Training School after giving birth to two "illegitimate" children. Reynolds and her male guardian sued the Home to prevent her sterilization. Eventually, her case (Haynes v Lapeer Circuit Judge) made it to the Michigan Supreme Court where the law was found to be unconstitutional.

A series of new sterilization laws were passed and expanded through 1929, which ultimately were ruled constitutional in Michigan state courts. By the final incarnation of the law, Michigan had the most expansive sterilization laws in the country and indeed encouraged the courts, hospitals, and prisons to be liberal in their application of it. As with the first law, victims challenged this law in the courts; however, with the Buck v. Bell decision permitting compulsory sterilization in 1927, attempts to overturn the law were unsuccessful.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, victims and potential victims continued to use the court to seek redress and prevent their own sterilization. Michigan law required patient or familial consent before a sterilization took place. If either party resisted, the probate courts could (and usually would) order the sterilization. Journalists routinely reported stories of consent obtained by "trickery." This disproportionately affected immigrant and poor individuals and families who could not read English and were often told that the forms were for the release of their family members. Yet young people within the institutions often knew about sterilization through stories circulated among inmates. With this knowledge, they often actively resisted by running away, contesting in court, and defensive violence.

This paper builds upon the work of disability, youth, incarceration, and eugenics scholars including Alexandra Minna Stern, Miroslava Chávez-García, Margaret Price, and Michael Rembis. It demonstrates how institutionalized young people and their families often resisted state-sanctioned violence, in the form of forced or coerced sterilization, against their bodies. It explores the various means of resistance that were available to and utilized by the communities disproportionately affected by eugenic policies: women, first and second generation immigrants, and the poor. This paper argues that youth resistance was a critical piece of eugenics in Michigan, and seeks to connect youth studies with disability studies and ethnic studies.