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Utah is sorting out its dark legacy from a 49-year program of forced sterilization

The Utah State Training School in American Fork as it appeared in February of 1942.
J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah
courtesy of The Utah State Historical Society
The Utah State Training School in American Fork as it appeared in February of 1942.

At least 830 people deemed “unfit” by the state were forcibly sterilized in Utah institutions from 1925 to 1974, according to a study from University of Utah researchers published in The Lancet Regional Health.

Before the study, Utah had never acknowledged or apologized for its sterilization program. The Utah Department of Health and Human Services has now issued an official statement, saying it “offers our deepest apologies for the loss, anxiety, trauma, and lasting side effects our friends and neighbors have suffered as a result of the state’s past non-consensual sterilization program.”

James Tabery, a professor of philosophy at the University of Utah, and one of the authors of the study said he found the statement from DHHS “heartwarming” because it was personal and powerful in a way that statements from other states apologizing for their previous forced sterilization programs weren’t.

“Over 30 states across America had programs like this and a small handful have acknowledged this in any sort of public way,” Tabery said. “... It conveyed that the state was taking this very seriously and wanted to express remorse quickly.”

The study predicted approximately 54 people who were sterilized in Utah are still alive today, but the exact total is unknown, according to Tabery. The DHHS statement shared that the agency is in the process of trying to identify those individuals.

“We plan to issue personal apologies to any individuals we are able to identify,” the department wrote. “While an apology cannot right the wrongs that were committed, we recognize the importance of acknowledging and understanding this history so we can learn from it and do better both now and in the future.”

Tabery said it was important that the DHHS’s statement communicated to the survivors that the shame doesn't belong to them, but to the state.

“By admitting that wrongdoing, it opens the door to having a meaningful conversation about what the state of Utah owes these people,” he said.

Sterilization programs in Utah and across the U.S.

At the beginning of the 20th century, eugenicists feared what they saw as the “unfit” were breeding out the “fit.” In 1925, the Utah State Legislature passed a bill that allowed for the forced sterilization of anyone institutionalized with “habitual sexual criminal tendencies, insanity, idiocy, imbecility, feeble-mindedness, or epilepsy.”

The rationale was that, over time, they could make unwanted “traits” — criminality, poverty, disabilities, or the catch-all term of feeble-mindedness — disappear by preventing them from being passed on.

“[But] throughout the 40s and 50s, human geneticists make it very clear that this is not how genetics works,” Tabery said. “These traits are far more complicated and primarily influenced by things in our environment.”

According to the study, Utah had a particularly aggressive program. Eugenicists praised Utah for sterilizing a bigger proportion of its residents than any other state in 1947, the decade the program peaked, and called it an “important achievement in public health.”

Nationwide, over 60,000 people were sterilized in the U.S. through eugenics programs.

Utah’s sterilization program continued until 1974.

Where the law stands now

Forced sterilization of some people with disabilities is still legal in Utah, along with 30 other states and Washington D.C., according to a 2022 report from the National Women’s Law Center. Under these laws, a judge can decide to sterilize the disabled person if they think they cannot make the decision on their own.

Although DHHS issued a statement, there hasn’t been an acknowledgment of Utah’s history of forced sterilization from any Utah governor or from the Legislature.

Tabery didn’t want to diminish the statement from the DHHS, but added that hearing an acknowledgment and apology from state leaders would be impactful because these are the same offices that sanctioned the original law.

“I do think there's something of value when you've got people at the highest level sort of saying, ‘hey, this happened because of people in positions of leadership here,’” he said. “And as people who occupy these positions of leadership today, we also want to express that remorse.’”

The day the study was published, Utah’s Disability Law Center, along with other disability organizations, issued a statement calling on the state of Utah to apologize for the forced sterilization of Utahns with disabilities, and officially prohibit the practice.

Nate Crippes, the center’s public affairs supervising attorney, said the DHHS apology was a nice gesture but also encouraged the governor to issue an official apology on behalf of the state.

“Maybe they were unaware of the scale of the practice [before the study], but I think now that they are, there's really no reason not to,” he said. “I think it would probably mean a lot to the folks that it happened to.”

Going forward, Crippes hopes, at a minimum, to see more conversation about this topic.

“I think drawing attention to some of these issues from the past and what is currently going on is an opportunity to at least think about what we can do to improve the lives of people with disabilities in our state,” Crippes said.

And for Tabery, the human aspect behind the raw data is key.

“Each of those 830 data points was a person who had a vision for their life, who had dreams, who may have wanted to have children and was scarred by this,” Tabery said. “That right was taken away from them.”

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