Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Document Type



From 1924 to 1932, Louisiana lawmakers considered five bills that would have granted superintendents of state institutions and some private hospitals the authority to forcibly sterilize their patients. Based on similar legislation passed in thirty-six other states, the bills cited eugenics as evidence that stripping these patients of their ability to reproduce would prevent the conditions such as feeblemindedness from passing on to the next generation. Although none of the bills passed both houses of the Louisiana legislature, a couple of them came dangerously close to becoming law. The debate among legislators, professionals, and social reformers provides a greater understanding of how Louisianans considered the controversial procedure. Proponents claimed that the procedure would end crime and poverty and save the state money. Opponents argued that eugenics was junk science and sterilization was a dangerous scheme. National figures contributed to the debate over compulsory eugenic sterilization in Louisiana, and the arguments offered resembled those in the national debate. Scholars have credited the opposition of Louisiana’s influential Roman Catholic Church as the reason why the state never adopted compulsory eugenic sterilization. A careful study of the public debate surrounding the bills and the breakdown of the legislative votes, however, suggests the failure resulted from more complex factors than a simple religious objection. The legislative vote indicates that the Catholic Churches’ objections did not always convince state senators from majority Catholic districts. Many of these lawmakers voted for the bills. Although, the Catholic opposition to the procedure did help to defeat the bill, other factors played a role. A prominent feature within the public debate is a discussion over individual rights versus the ability of the state to violate those rights in order to protect the public good. These finding not only challenge the accepted interpretation surrounding compulsory eugenic sterilization in Louisiana, but they suggest that simple explanations, such as religious divisions, do not necessarily explain legislative votes.



Document Availability at the Time of Submission

Release the entire work immediately for access worldwide.

Committee Chair

Foster, Gaines



Included in

History Commons