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