A Human Being, and Not a Mere Social Factor: Catholic Strategies for Dealing with Sterilization Statutes in the 1920s




Leon, Sharon

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Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Society of Church History


This article reviews the developing strategies of Catholic opposition to state laws for compulsory sterilization of so-called ‘feeble-minded’ residents of state institutions during the 1920s. In 1927 the Supreme Court, in its landmark decision Buck v. Bell, affirmed the constitutionality of such laws. This article traces the work of Catholic moral theologians, such as John A. Ryan, and representatives of various lay organizations in opposing such laws and educating Catholic laity on the natural law issues in the debate. In 1930 the National Catholic Welfare Conference published four pamphlets in a series entitled ‘Problems of Mental Deficiency’ that provided a full compliment of medical, legal, and moral objections to the laws. On 31 December 1930 Pope Pius XI in his encyclical ‘Casti Connubii’ provided an authoritative pronouncement on eugenics and sterilization that reaffirmed Catholic opposition to eugenics policy initiatives.


Originally published by Cambridge University Press: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S000964070010931X


Catholic, Eugenics, US History, Sterilization


Sharon M. Leon. "A Human Being, and Not a Mere Social Factor": Catholic Strategies for Dealing with Sterilization Statutes in the 1920s." Church History Vol. 73, No. 2 (Jun., 2004) (pp. 383-411) DOI: 10.1017/S000964070010931X