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"Sterilization of the Insane"

Heritage Community Foundation, Albertasource.ca and The Famous Five Foundation

Emily Murphy, "Sterilization of the Insane," The Vancouver Sun Sep. 1932.

The only portion of the British Empire which has officially adopted permissive eugenical sterilization of the insane and feeble-minded is the Province of Alberta. . . . You are quite right: Alberta prefers to lead the followers rather than to follow the leaders.

To forestall any would-be wits, permit me to say that 70% of Alberta's insane are not natives of this, the newest province in Confederation, but come from countries outside of Canada.

Since the act came into force three years ago, 150 insane persons have been sterilized and returned to their homes—that is about 8½% of the patients.

Human Wreckage

If, however, we consider this matter from the national viewpoint it will be seen that Alberta's accomplishment is only a beginning, there being over 25,000 persons in Canadian insane asylums, or more than in all our general hospitals put together. Nearly one-fourth of these mental patients are incarcerated in the province of Quebec where birth control is under the ban of theologians.

In its attempt at salving the human wreckage which has been dumped from foreign lands, the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta appoints a board of four persons, the successor of which, from time to time, shall be appointed by the Lieutenant Governor in Council, but two of the board shall be medical practitioners nominated by the Senate of the University of Alberta and the Council of the College of Physicians respectively, and two shall be persons appointed by the Lieutenant Governor in Council.

When it is proposed to discharge any inmate of a mental hospital, the Medical Superintendent, or other officer thereof, may cause such inmate to be examined by or in the presence of a board of examiners. This board in Alberta consists of three men and one woman, all of whose names are therein set forth

If, upon such examination, the board is unanimously of the opinion that the patient might be safely discharged, if the danger of procreation with its attendant risk of the multiplication of the evil by transmission of the disability to progeny, were eliminated, the board may direct in writing such surgical operation for sexual sterilization of the inmate as may be specified in the written direction and shall appoint some competent surgeon to perform the operation.

Safer Than Childbirth

It will be seen by this that if the patients are to remain in the asylum, they are not sterilized. Indeed, in this event, there is no occasion for the operation.

The operation itself is without serious pain or substantial danger to life. In the case of males, it is very simple, only requiring a local anaesthetic, and taking about five minutes—just about the same time as it takes to execute unhappy degenerates who are not answerable to law because of their imperfect orientation.

The operation for sterilization is more serious with women in that it requires an incision and an anaesthetic. About a week is required for recovery. No ill results, so far have occurred in Alberta. Indeed, the operation is much less risky than childbirth in that four mothers out of every thousand die annually from this cause.

In California over fifty thousand persons have undergone this operation for eugenic reason and only four deaths have resulted. The operation does not interfere in anywise with the sexual functions other than to prevent procreation. Paroled persons who have been sterilized may be happily married.

While not obligatory, it is the custom of hospital officials to consult the patient's relatives.

The answer?

It is needless to say that no man or woman whose relative is only mildly insane would leave any remedial treatment untried in order to obtain the patient's release from the everlasting seclusion behind asylum walls. If they did, the responsibility then devolves upon the Government as trustees of the people. It is to them we must look for protection, not only for the individual, but for the future manhood of the Dominion of Canada.

The Alternative

It is true we still have people who say "Pooh! Pooh!" and other frightening words—people who argue that sterilization is an invasion of the personal rights of the individual—but this is chiefly an eclipse-eyed perception arising from the exigencies of either religious or political partisanship.

In reply to these arguments of oppositionists, we quote from the report in British Columbia of the Royal Commission on Mental Hygiene: "We question very seriously if the alternative proposed by opponents of sterilization—that is, complete institutional segregation during the whole of the reproductive period of life—is not a much greater invasion of personal rights, particularly in cases where the individual might live out a nearly normal life in the community after the possibility of procreation had been removed."

In Alberta, it is also the aim of the Government that the feeble-minded may be returned to their homes in order to spend their lives as happily and as naturally as possible. To this end, officers of the Department of Health exercise particular care in seeing that the environmental circumstances of these homes are favorable for the released patient.

The object of sterilization is three-fold. It aims at public security by preventing sexual crimes against women and children by feeble-minded but full-lifed males; that patients of both sexes may cease to be charges upon the vastly burdened rate-payers, and for the mental and physical betterment of our racial life.

All patients from mental hospitals are released in a parole of six months. That is to say if they relapse during this period they may be again officially taken in charge by the Government. After his period has elapsed, a trial de novo is required. The great majority of patients are returned, some of them as often as five or six times. During these periods of parole, unless sterilized, the patients procreate rapidly. Authorities tell us that the insane and feeble-minded are giving birth to a progeny at somewhere from two to six times faster than normal people.

Parental Tragedy

One of the painful experiences of the magisterial life is to take from an insane and violent woman the little baby to which she has given birth during her parole; knowing that someday the child, in turn, is likely to be a patient, owing to the fact that its future was mortgaged before it was born.

Awhile ago, in one of our institutions for the care of the aged, it was found that sixteen of the women were feeble-minded and that these had produced 116 mentally deficient children.

Enquiring into this same matter of descent, it was found in Alberta that out of 3200 persons who had been treated for insanity, nearly 4000 children had been born. It is estimated that one out of every five of these children—that is to say 800 of them—will come ultimately as patients to a mental hospital.... It is quite true that there are tragedies that go on and on. This is one of them

Perhaps, after all, there is not so much credit in being a mother as being fitted to be one.

On the average, among ordinary people, only one child out of four thousand becomes eminent. On the other hand, among famous families -that is to say among human thoroughbreds—one child in eight reaches distinction, proving the absolute correctness of the statement, "To him that hath shall be given."

This means that when a child is born, we may predict its future with considerable confidence after we have studied its ancestry. Everyone has ancestry except Topsy of ""Uncle Tom's Cabin," who "jes'growed."

Some Examples

Examples of this doctrine of "Like father, like son," may be found in the careers of the two Pitts, both Prime Ministers of England; of the two Cannings; of Joseph and Austin Chamberlain; of Lord Alfred Tennyson and his son Hallam; of Lord Randolf Churchill and Winston Churchill, of the Stephensons, father and son, and of the two Alexandre Dumas. Even physical characteristics like "the Hapsburg lip," have also passed along for generations among the Emperors of the Hapsburgs.

In this Dominion, we may point to families like the Merediths, Lemieux, Oslers and many others whose names must always add lustre to the stately annals of Canadian history.

While we have been talking of famous parents, it is equally true that stupid fathers with poor brain fibre produce stupid sons. In this connection, someone has tersely remarked that while the child of a crippled father cannot inherit his wooden leg, it is almost certain to inherit his wooden head.

At the Ponoka, Oliver and Red Deer Hospitals in Alberta, this is amply confirmed, the physicians claiming that 90 per cent of all insanity in these institutions may be traced to heredity. This is indubitably what Rufus Choate had in mind when he said the trouble with the feeble-minded is there are so many of us.

They also tell us that the characteristics of one parent may modify the characteristics of the other, which explains why children in the same family vary greatly in ability and conduct—a statement, however, which has already been succinctly set forth in a song concerning a citizen called Spratt who greatly disliked a diet of fat, and whose wife simply couldn't consider the lean.

Biblical Authority

The science of genetics shows to us that where both the husband and wife are feeble-minded, all the children are feeble-minded. Nature or heredity is the determining factor in the children's lives None of us live or die to ourselves. What we are and what we do influence our children, and their children, whether we will or not. The Hindu proverb is accurate when it says: "What is written on the forehead will be there, and nothing more."

There can be found folk—many of them—who contend that the methods of eugenic sterilization contradict the Bible. On the contrary, the Bible asserts that men do not gather grapes from thorns nor figs from thistles. It also says that the tree that brings not forth good fruit should be cut down and cast into the fire.

It is true that in the sterilization of the unfit we do not destroy the tree: we do not cast it into the fire, we only prevent it bearing fruit. Incidentally, it may possibly serve as a shade tree or as a windbreak.

Besides, most of us are coming to believe that it is vastly better to bring the Kingdom of God upon earth rather than to defer it for heavenly regions. Indeed, the one is actually supplementary to the other.

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