Alberta Government Sterilizes Thousands Deemed Genetically and Mentally Unfit Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In an attempt to stem the growing population of immigrants and the urban poor, the Alberta, Canada, legislative assembly passed a law designed to keep genetically “unfit” people from reproducing. Once in place, the government agency in charge of approving sterilizations removed itself from the public eye and continued its project of eliminating so-called social deviants from the gene pool long after the science of eugenics was discredited. Despite the draconian aspects of this eugenics law, it was not repealed until 1972.

Summary of Event

For forty-four years, the Canadian province of Alberta pursued one of the most aggressive and persistent eugenics policies in North American history. Eugenical theories during the 1920’s proposed that the human race could be improved by selective breeding. Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act of 1928 Sexual Sterilization Act of 1928 (Alberta) attempted to alleviate social problems of unemployment, crime, and poverty by authorizing surgical operations on mental patients who were deemed unfit to reproduce. The act originally targeted ethnic minorities and women who lived in poverty, though adolescent children were frequently targeted as well. Though eugenics lost its scientific credibility during the following thirty years, surgical sterilization continued at a high rate in Alberta until 1972, when sweeping civil rights reforms led to the law’s repeal. By that time, over twenty-eight hundred men, women, and children had been sterilized, most of them without their knowledge or consent. [kw]Sterilizes Thousands Deemed Genetically and Mentally Unfit, Alberta Government (Mar. 21, 1928) Sexual Sterilization Act of 1928 (Alberta) Eugenics Alberta, Canada;sterilization law Muir, Leilani Sexual Sterilization Act of 1928 (Alberta) Eugenics Alberta, Canada;sterilization law Muir, Leilani [g]Canada;Mar. 21, 1928: Alberta Government Sterilizes Thousands Deemed Genetically and Mentally Unfit[00440] [c]Medicine and health care;Mar. 21, 1928: Alberta Government Sterilizes Thousands Deemed Genetically and Mentally Unfit[00440] [c]Law and the courts;Mar. 21, 1928: Alberta Government Sterilizes Thousands Deemed Genetically and Mentally Unfit[00440] [c]Psychology and psychiatry;Mar. 21, 1928: Alberta Government Sterilizes Thousands Deemed Genetically and Mentally Unfit[00440] [c]Science and technology;Mar. 21, 1928: Alberta Government Sterilizes Thousands Deemed Genetically and Mentally Unfit[00440] [c]Human rights;Mar. 21, 1928: Alberta Government Sterilizes Thousands Deemed Genetically and Mentally Unfit[00440] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Mar. 21, 1928: Alberta Government Sterilizes Thousands Deemed Genetically and Mentally Unfit[00440] MacEachran, John W. Thompson, Margaret W.

The sterilization act permitted mental institutions to sterilize particular inmates as a precondition for their release. It called for the creation of the Alberta Eugenics Board, a four-person committee composed of two physicians and two individuals from outside the medical profession. The board would be responsible for determining whether a given patient might produce offspring who would inherit the characteristics that led to institutionalization and whether sterilization would alleviate the risks involved in the patient’s reintegration into society. If the board agreed unanimously that these conditions were met, a surgeon could legally sterilize the patient. Before its revision in 1937, the law required that the patient (or the next of kin, if the patient was mentally incompetent) give consent before the surgery could become legal. The bill met with public opposition and opposition among members of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly. Strong support from the United Farmers of Alberta, the dominant political party in the Legislative Assembly, pushed the bill to passage on March 21, 1928.

The sterilization act was implemented in 1929 with the first meetings of the Alberta Eugenics Board under Chairman John M. MacEachran, founder of the University of Alberta’s Department of Philosophy and Psychology. Under MacEachran the board soon developed an efficient system to approve sterilizations. A representative from a mental institution had to present each candidate for sterilization to the board in person. The board reviewed the patient’s case history, interviewed the patient, and made its decision. It authorized sterilization in 99 percent of all cases it reviewed. For the remaining 1 percent, the board deferred its decision until a later date; it never denied authorization.

Before 1937, the consent requirement had prevented many authorized sterilizations. Although the board approved 1,283 candidates for sterilization between 1928 and 1938, 644 persons were actually sterilized. To increase this rate, the legislative assembly removed the consent requirement for mentally “defective” patients and expanded the grounds for sterilization to include psychotics and people considered unfit to raise children—a characterization that in practice was applied to women who drank heavily or who had become pregnant out of wedlock. As eugenics programs declined after World War II, the Eugenics Board’s activities were mostly forgotten by the general public. MacEachran maintained a small network of contacts in the provincial government and the mental health system, but he remained isolated from much of the scientific community, whose consensus now rejected most of the old beliefs that justified the board’s creation.

The removal of the consent requirement made most who resided in a mental institution vulnerable to involuntary sterilization. Though the number of candidates presented dropped after the 1930’s, the number of sterilizations increased once institutions began diagnosing more patients with mental deficiencies. Tests for mental deficiency favored well-educated English speakers from middle-class backgrounds. Women and Canadian Indians were the most vulnerable to sterilization because of gender and ethnic biases in the evaluation procedures. Mental defectiveness could be diagnosed at an early age, and the growth of training schools for disadvantaged youth after 1950 led to a greater proportion of young people among the candidates presented to the board. At the same time, the number of adult patients declined rapidly. Ninety-three percent of candidates under the age of fifteen already had been diagnosed as mentally defective before they were presented.

The administration of the Provincial Training School for the Mentally Defective (PTS) was especially zealous in its approach to sterilization during the 1950’s and 1960’s. The PTS administration wanted to sterilize mentally defective children at the earliest possible age, referring many children soon after the onset of puberty. After 1955, parents had to sign a consent form for sexual sterilization before their children could be admitted. One administrator used the children for Experiments;medical medical experiments, obtaining authorization from the board to remove the testicles of boys with Down syndrome (who were already known to be infertile), which he then used as tissue samples for his research. These were blatant violations of the Sexual Sterilization Act because the patients were not going to be discharged from the institution and the surgical procedure was completely unnecessary, but by this time the board’s entrenchment and lack of oversight had given it near-complete autonomy. In its first decade of operation, the board had sometimes spent up to an hour discussing certain cases, often because of consent issues or concerns about possible negative effects of sterilization. By 1960, it often spent less than ten minutes on each case before authorizing sterilization.

The Eugenics Eugenics Board gained public attention in 1969, when several women who had been sterilized requested medical help in restoring their fertility. This prompted two University of Alberta law professors to review the Sexual Sterilization Act. They presented a scathing attack on the act’s antiquated science and imprecise language. It questioned the board’s ability to determine the heritability of a mental deficiency. The act was repealed in 1972 by the newly elected Progressive Conservative government.


The extent of the harm done by the Sexual Sterilization Act did not become evident until 1995. Former PTS resident Leilani Muir sued the province of Alberta for wrongful confinement and sterilization while she was a teenager at PTS from 1955 to 1965. In court it was discovered that children in PTS were often sterilized not as a precondition for their release but to suppress sexual behavior when they reached puberty. Muir, like many PTS patients, had been retained at PTS for labor and illegal experimentation. After she left the institution, an IQ test showed her to have normal intelligence.

Margaret W. Thompson, a geneticist who served briefly on the Eugenics Board, acknowledged that it was impossible to determine the risk of a patient having children with genetic disorders. By 1960, the board had realized that the standards of the law were too high to meet, so it approved sterilizations of nearly every individual who came before the board, which included patients with conditions that rendered them infertile. Most of the patients, Thompson claimed, were unable to read or write or dress themselves. School records showed that this was untrue, but the board did not spend sufficient time on any one case to verify the accuracy of the information it was given. In 1996 an Alberta court awarded $900,000 to Muir for wrongful sterilization, pain and suffering, damages, and court costs. The case of Muir v. Alberta Muir v. Alberta (1996) (1996) set a precedent that prompted more than eight hundred victims to seek claims against the province for wrongful sterilization over the next four years. By February, 2000, Alberta had paid $150 million in compensation and legal fees.

After Muir v. Alberta, the Sexual Sterilization Act became a cautionary tale in the application of biological theories to social policy. Some commentators have drawn parallels between the repercussions of the Sexual Sterilization Act and the ethical dilemmas that may arise from breakthroughs with the Human Genome Project, stem-cell research, and prenatal screening for birth Birth disorders disorders. The prospect of medical technologies that may allow doctors to detect or manipulate certain genetic characteristics in fetuses may lead to concerns about how far human beings can, or should, go in the attempt to control the biology of future generations. Sexual Sterilization Act of 1928 (Alberta) Eugenics Alberta, Canada;sterilization law Muir, Leilani

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Christian, Timothy. The Mentally Ill and Human Rights in Alberta: A Study of the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act. Edmonton: University of Alberta, Faculty of Law, 1973. A legal analysis of the passage, revision, and implementation of the Sexual Sterilization Act and its effect on the human rights of the mentally ill.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dowbiggin, Ian. Keeping America Sane: Psychiatry and Eugenics in the United States and Canada, 1880-1940. New York: Cornell University Press, 2003. Explores the role played by psychiatrists in researching, supporting, and opposing eugenics policies in North America.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grekul, Jana, et al. “Sterilizing the Feeble-Minded: Eugenics in Alberta, Canada, 1929-1972.” Journal of Historical Sociology 17 (December, 2004): 358-384. An accessible quantitative study of how race, gender, age, and other factors affected decisions about sexual sterilization in Canada.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McLaren, Angus. Our Own Master Race: Eugenics in Canada, 1885-1945. Toronto, Ont.: McClelland & Stewart, 1990. Examines the social, political, and intellectual influences on the eugenics movement in Canada.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McWirter, K. G., and J. Weijer. “The Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act: A Genetic Critique.” University of Toronto Law Journal 19 (Summer, 1969): 424-431. A scientific and legal appraisal of the Sexual Sterilization Act shortly before its repeal in 1972.

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