“Eugenics” refers to a social-engineering project based on the unsubstantiated idea that humanity can be improved by eliminating supposedly defective or lesser genes in favor of others. During the twentieth century, American medical professionals and lawmakers influenced by the pseudoscience of eugenics forcibly sterilized patients in state hospitals. Eugenicists selected these patients because they lacked the power that protected other groups from eugenics programs. Between 1909 and 1970, about 60,000 men and women in the United States were sterilized in the name of eugenics. Surgeons at state institutions, general practitioners, and the court system targeted the mentally and physically disabled, impoverished women, and immigrants for sexual segregation and sterilization to preserve what they called the American “genetic stock.”
The state of Colorado participated in this nationwide social-engineering project. Legislators proposed several forced-sterilization bills in the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan held power in state government. The bills failed, but that did not prevent law enforcement, the court system, and especially state mental institutions from pursuing a policy of eugenic sterilization on people deemed unfit for reproduction. The exact number of sterilizations performed in the state is unknown. The practice declined in the 1960s, after patients were given more rights and moved from large state institutions to smaller, community-based facilities. As late as 1989, however, a Colorado district court ordered the sterilization of a supposedly impaired adult.
What Is Eugenics?
Followers of the American eugenics movement, called eugenicists, attempted to control the inheritance of human characteristics through policies that encouraged marriage and reproduction between certain people. Influenced by social Darwinism—the misapplication of Darwin’s natural selection theory to human society—eugenicists argued that problems within society stemmed from biological inheritance. In this view, charity needlessly kept the poor—therefore “weakest”—members of society alive against natural law. As a result, the eugenics movement, composed largely of white elites, privileged existing social hierarchies that benefited populations of native-born people who were also wealthy Protestant descendants of northern Europeans.
Eugenicists revolutionized the perceived connection between mental aptitude, moral behavior, and genetic inheritance. In doing so, they viewed intelligence as a rigid, inherited quality and used pseudoscientific tools like the intelligence quotient (IQ) test to prove their belief in the superiority of upper-class whites. They developed a scale of feeblemindedness ranging from “high-grade moron” to middle-range “imbecile” to low-level “idiot” to categorize people. Eugenicists not only considered mental and physical disabilities to be inferior traits but also considered social issues such as drug addiction and poverty to be products of genetic destiny. They hoped to eliminate undesirable traits through marriage restrictions, sexual segregation, and sterilization—Fallopian tube removals or closures for women, vasectomies for men.
The Foundation of Eugenics
Eugenics rose to prominence in the Progressive Era (1900–20), when reformers of all kinds envisioned a utopian society free from poverty and disease. Progressive legislative efforts to improve public health in the face of rapid industrialization propelled eugenic ideas into mainstream society, and eugenic ideology persisted well past the 1920s. However, not all Progressives believed in eugenics.
In Colorado, anxieties over public health and immigration fostered the state’s eugenics movement. Eugenicists exploited nationwide efforts to implement hygienic practices and blamed minorities and marginalized populations for disease outbreaks. For example, in the nineteenth century, Colorado’s dry climate became a haven for tuberculosis (TB) patients seeking treatment. Incorrectly believing the disease to be hereditary, medical professionals turned to eugenics as a way to prevent TB’s spread. In 1901 Charles Denison, professor of chest disease and climatology at the University of Denver, pushed for laws preventing marriage between TB-infected individuals. Denison argued Colorado should calculate the ratio of tubercular deaths to healthy individuals in each family to identify “defective biology in the family strain” and stop the disease.
As the century progressed, eugenicists moved away from health-related arguments and instead focused on advancing anti-immigration legislation. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) took over Colorado politics, emboldening anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant strains within the eugenics movement. Over the previous half century, native-born Anglo-Saxon Protestants had warily watched the arrival of new groups such as Italian Catholics and Mexican immigrants, who were perceived as threatening an imagined American racial stock. Upset by the changes, white Coloradans embraced nativism. By the mid-1920s, the state claimed 35,000 men and 11,000 women as registered members of the KKK. Colorado’s eugenics movement capitalized on racial and social prejudices against minorities.
Civic leader and physician Minnie C. T. Love (1855–1942) advanced the eugenics cause in Colorado. At the start of Love’s career, she focused on disease and poverty. She served as head physician for the Florence Crittenton Home for unwed mothers, founded the Babies Summer Hospital (Children’s Hospital of Denver) in 1897, and organized care for juvenile delinquents at the State Home and Industrial School for Girls. The state recognized her leadership and elected her to the Colorado House of Representatives in 1921 and 1924; she also served on the State Board of Charities, the State Board of Health, and the Denver School Board.
By that time, however, Love’s efforts to help impoverished women and children became entangled with nationalist and white supremacist efforts to suppress reproductive rights. In 1924 the Colorado Women of the KKK elected Love to the office of excellent commander. As a Colorado lawmaker, KKK commander, and physician, Love introduced two forced-sterilization bills in 1921 and 1925 that targeted disabled, chronically ill, and incarcerated people. Though unsuccessful, these efforts laid the foundation for future sterilization bills.
In 1927 state representatives drafted Colorado’s most successful attempt at a forced-sterilization bill. Both legislative houses passed the bill, most likely because it coincided with the US Supreme Court’s Buck v. Bell decision that upheld a forced-sterilization law in Virginia. The Supreme Court’s decision gave states the approval to enact their own forced-sterilization laws targeting institutionalized patients. However, Colorado’s bill ultimately failed. Governor William H. “Billy” Adams vetoed it because he believed institutionalization worked more efficiently than forced sterilization to prevent the birth of undesired children.
The Criminalization of Poverty
Lack of legislation did not prevent Colorado eugenicists from using local courts to advance their sterilization agenda throughout the 1920s and 1930s. For example, in 1921 a Denver woman named Anna Reynolds Cassidente faced sterilization for suspected child neglect. Cassidente’s doctor, Ray Sunderland, recommended sterilization for the mother of five after a social worker reported the Cassidente home was filthy and their children were malnourished. Judge Royal R. Graham of Denver’s juvenile court ordered Cassidente’s sterilization if both husband and wife agreed to the operation.
The Cassidente decision made national headlines because it coincided with the new Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921, which gave states the power to educate women on sexual health, pay traveling nurses, and establish prenatal care clinics in rural and impoverished neighborhoods, all in an attempt to combat infant mortality. At the time, the birth-control movement overlapped with eugenic efforts to sterilize “unfit” women because many social reformers saw both as public health advancements. Conservative opponents, on the other hand, viewed the Sheppard-Towner Act as a Communist ploy for socialized health care and argued that federally funded medicine would force birth-control measures onto American families, as in the case of the Cassidentes. When bad publicity mounted, the Denver court overthrew the Cassidente sterilization order.
The Cassidente case reveals how eugenicists worked with Colorado’s law enforcement, welfare system, and healthcare providers to target poor and otherwise marginalized people for sterilization.
Sterilizations in Colorado Institutions
Throughout much of the twentieth century, Colorado state institutions performed sterilizations. Patients were often at the will of hospital superintendents, with few legal measures to protect them. Many victims, usually teenage girls, faced sterilization after run-ins with law enforcement or placement into group homes such as the State Industrial School or the Good Shepherd Home. Supposedly troubled individuals received a mental evaluation from the Colorado Psychopathic Hospital; a judge on the Lunacy Commission then decided if they should be institutionalized for reasons of insanity or endangerment. During the early twentieth century, Colorado funded three major institutions: the Colorado State Hospital in Pueblo, the State Home for Mental Defectives in Grand Junction, and the State Home and Training School in Arvada.
These state hospitals operated more like prisons; they were under a hierarchical system with little government oversight, which allowed superintendents to sterilize patients at their own discretion in their roles as law enforcers and surgeons. All three hospitals suffered from chronic underfunding, overtaxed and poorly trained staff, and overcrowding. These conditions led to rampant patient abuse. In Grand Junction, hospital superintendent B. L. Jefferson suggested a state sterilization law to stop the birth of “mentally defective” children.
There were also accusations of routine forced sterilization at the Arvada facility. However, Colorado health officials kept no official records of sterilization operations performed. Most surviving evidence comes from Colorado State Hospital under the direction of superintendent Frank H. Zimmerman, who served from 1928 to 1961. Soon after he took charge, Zimmerman wrote to Colorado attorney general William L. Boatright, asking under what circumstances he was allowed to sterilize patients. Boatright responded that Colorado had no sterilization law, so Zimmerman had no authority to perform such operations. Yet Zimmerman continued to sterilize patients over the next three decades. He later argued that the hospital attempted to obtain parent or guardian permission beforehand, but the practice was ad hoc at best and coercive at worst. Unlike other states where sterilization laws mandated a trial beforehand, Colorado failed to give patients any opportunity to object to their procedures.
In 1941, for example, Zimmerman performed a salpingectomy (Fallopian tube removal) on a seventeen-year-old patient named Lucille Schreiber without her consent. Hospital physicians believed that without the surgery, Schreiber would conceive illegitimate children who would deplete the state’s financial resources and contaminate the nation’s supposed genetic purity. In 1955 Schreiber sued Zimmerman and three other doctors for damages. Her lawsuit included additional plaintiffs: Mable Hoar, Alva Christian, Stella Flores, Nancy Danneberg, and Josephine Roy. The case was dismissed on a technicality, but it provides some of the best evidence we have for sterilization practices in Colorado.
Despite the eugenic impulses incubating within the broader culture, some Catholics and scientists demonstrated anxiety about the finality of sterilization given the dubious evidence in its favor. In 1927 a variety of Catholic groups protested against compulsory sterilization of “mental defectives” and epileptics because they believed God granted procreation as a natural right. Meanwhile, a few secular groups questioned the science behind eugenics. Charles Rymer, assistant director of the Colorado Psychopathic Hospital, challenged the assumptions of “hereditary feeblemindedness.” Rymer cautioned that scientists did not know for certain that physical and mental disabilities were passed from mother to child.
Most victims of eugenic sterilization were not developmentally disabled but merely poor, as in the case of Schreiber v. Zimmerman. Yet individual court cases like Schreiber’s did not bring an end to eugenic sterilization at state institutions; that came only with the deinstitutionalization movement that developed after World War II. As traumatized veterans returned home, legislators across America could no longer ignore the country’s inadequate mental-health practices. At the national level, President Harry Truman signed the National Mental Health Act in 1946. A few years later, the first antipsychotic drugs revolutionized patient treatment by reducing the need for physical restraints. Beginning in the 1950s, lawmakers updated Colorado’s lunacy laws to give patients more rights, and the state remodeled and reorganized its institutions over the next two decades. Health officials dispersed patient populations into smaller, community-based facilities, where they could live closer to their families and get access to more specialized care. The Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo (as the Colorado State Hospital is known today) now houses fewer than 500 patients, down from 6,000 in 1962.
In the second half of the twentieth century, traditional arguments for eugenics were largely discredited by Nazi eugenics policies and advances in genetic science. Efforts by legislators and mental health advocates to close state institutions, repeal sterilization laws, and enlighten the public about a century of hidden abuse ended the formal eugenics movement.
Yet eugenic thought shifted and survived. Starting in the 1950s, the pronatalist movement applied eugenic ideology to marriage and the family, arguing that “fit” parents reproduced only within wedlock. For example, the eugenicist Paul Popenoe also pioneered marriage counseling and taught eugenics at his American Institute of Family Relations (which inspired organizations such as Colorado’s Focus on the Family) through his death in 1979.
This revitalized eugenics movement aligned with people concerned about population growth to advocate for sterilization programs in developing nations and poor communities. Pivoting away from scientific racism, eugenicists talked instead in terms of ending poverty and reforming welfare. Their primary targets also shifted from poor white women to women of color; beginning in the 1960s, the federal government sterilized poor Black women in the South and American Indian women in the West.
Even today, the legacy of eugenic philosophy continues to shape cultural biases regarding disability, class, race, and immigration status. For example, certain scientists still push the boundaries of disease prevention and genetic engineering in pursuit of healthier offspring. Since the 1980s, genetic screening and preimplantation genetic testing have been used to eliminate fatal childhood diseases such as Tay-Sachs, but also to allow parents to abort fetuses that they fear might be born with Down syndrome, gender abnormalities, or other traits deemed undesirable.
Questions of sexual autonomy and disability rights also persist. In practice, Colorado has struggled to decide if the state can sterilize a person based on safety concerns. In 1989 the Delta County District Court ordered the compulsory sterilization of an impaired adult named LaVista Romero, even though Romero objected. A year later, the Colorado Supreme Court reversed the order because Romero, despite her supposed impairment, could understand the relationship between sex and pregnancy as well as the consequences of sterilization. As of 2020, the Colorado Revised Statutes state that any person over the age of eighteen with an intellectual or developmental disability has to give informed consent before sterilization.
The total number of institutionalized patients sterilized by the state is unknown. However, Lucille Schreiber’s lawsuit against Colorado State Hospital and other anecdotal evidence suggest Colorado’s healthcare system allowed for the unregulated practice of forced sterilization during much of the twentieth century. By design, victims of sterilization lack children to share their stories and push for changes to mental healthcare. Governments in Virginia, home of the Buck v. Bell case, and the Canadian province of Alberta have addressed their history of eugenic sterilization, a process that included financial compensation to victims. The eugenics movement in Colorado, however, is not as well known; most people today are more likely to associate eugenics with the horrors of Nazi Germany instead of the dusty foothills of Colorado.