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Last week, we published STERILIZED, Reporter Jess Engebretson’s disturbing story of Rose Brooks and Lewis Reynolds, two of more than 60,000 men and women forcibly sterilized in the United States by doctors working in state hospitals. The doctors and nurses who performed the vasectomies and salpingectomies weren’t breaking the law.

Throughout the 20th Century, state legislators passed laws that allowed these surgical procedures. It was all part of the early 20th century eugenics movement. But, you might ask, how could this happen? How could the law deny tens of thousands of men and women the right to have children?

Life of the Law invited scholars who have studied eugenics to join us in the studios at KQED in San Francisco to talk about eugenics, past and present.

Osagie Obasogie is Professor of Law at UC Hastings San Francisco, author of Blinded by Sight.

Marcy Darnovsky is Executive Director at the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley.

Alexandra Minna Stern is Professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan.

Milton Reynolds is Senior Program Associate at Facing History and Ourselves.



This Bonus Episode was produced by Nancy Mullane and Jonathan Hirsch. Special thanks to Osagie Obasogie, Marcy Darnovsky, Alexandra Minna Stern, and Milton Reynolds for their contribution to this production.



No Mas Bebés: Online Conversation with Virginia Espino, Renee Tajima-Peña, and Alexandra Minna Stern

Rob Wilson Interviewed by Milton Reynolds: Online Conversation about Surviving Eugenics

Dorothy Roberts and Jonathan Marks Online Conversation about Nicholas Wade’s new book “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History”, and the endurance of scientific racism.

Alexandra Minna Stern and Corey Johnson Online Conversationabout sterilization abuse in California in the 20th and 21st centuries




This episode of Life of the Law was funded in part by grants from the Open Society Foundation, the Law and Society Association, the Proteus Fund, the Ford Foundation, and the National Science Foundation.

© Copyright 2016 Life of the Law. All rights reserved.


  • Yoav Weiss

    “Life of the Law” has a heavy liberal slant. That’s OK. I’m a liberal and I like my
    views to be reinforced as much as the next guy. In the Eugenics Panel program this went a bit
    too far.

    First of all, Eugenics – not in the forced-sterilization or Nazi-genocidal sense – but in the much
    broader definition that the members of the panel seemed to accept, is not
    morally unequivocal. A moral case for genetic intervention in cases such as
    diabetes, auto-immune diseases, mental retardation or other congenital defects
    (I use the word advisedly) can easily be made. So the panelists, who all seemed
    to support and agree with each other, gave a rather boring overview on an issue
    that in fact may divide the “liberal left”. No voice was given to the
    view eugenics is actually natural.

    Since animals have had brains of any meaningful size, males and females have tried to attract and
    choose mates that present traits useful to their potential offspring. This
    happens every day on the savannah as it does on Tinder. So where is the moral
    problem in choosing genetic intervention? What if congenital diseases could be eradicated?
    Would having taller and lighter-skinned people be too high a price to pay? Access
    is a question. The social relations between “improved” humans and
    “natural” humans is a question (the film Gattaca raises it). Does the
    right to bring children really extend to every human being? Even those who are
    completely incapable of raising those children? (meaning: that their care falls
    automatically on the community) These are serious moral and social questions
    that cannot all be rejected out of hand as a priori evil without debate.

    The left had traditionally accepted science and scientific rationality as a basis for its political
    thought. In this discussion the Darwinian worldview (which liberals fought and
    still fight to bring into schools) is brought into conflict with a post-modern
    sociological reading (an approach that has exposed many of the subtle and insidious
    ways that hegemonic power has maintained itself and excluded others). These are
    the makings of a fascinating discussion which was completely missed by the
    monolithic panel.

  • Justin Waters

    The fallacy of their reasoning is that by (wink-wink nudge-nudge) advocating for a prohibition on genetic enhancement and by taking that power from families and doctors, they are setting themselves up as the “god committee” or “tyrannical government” they claim to oppose.
    ~ I will leave you with a bioethics brain teaser:
    If a woman has the legal right to have a disabled child (including the right to drink alcohol while pregnant), then why should she not have the right to have a humanzee, clone, or high-risk germ-line modification when in both cases she is knowingly accepting the risk, the fetus never consented, and in both cases greater social stratification is likely to result from the child’s disability or enhancement?

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