The word "eugenics" is derived from the Greek word meaning "well born." It was first used in 1883 by Sir Francis Galton, who founded the eugenics movement in England in 1904. The movement focused on both positive and negative eugenics, though with greater emphasis on the latter. Positive eugenics included the encouragement of procreation by individuals and groups who were viewed as possessing desirable characteristics and genes, thereby improving and strengthening the overall gene pool of society. Negative eugenics involved discouraging and decreasing procreation by individuals and groups who were viewed as having inferior or undesirable characteristics and genes. The goal of negative eugenics was pursued by a number of different methods aimed at limiting the capacity and opportunity for procreation, including sexual sterilization, marriage prohibition, segregation and institutionalization.

Social and Scientific Assumptions

At the heart of the eugenics movement lay certain social and scientific assumptions. One such assumption, based on the work of Mendel, was that certain characteristics and traits were thought to be hereditary. Another was that these characteristics and traits were believed to be socially undesirable. Hence it was thought to be in society's interests to reduce the spread of these undesirable traits by limiting the power of reproduction by those individuals and groups who possessed them. Among the characteristics which many proponents of eugenics viewed as almost exclusively hereditary were mental retardation, mental illness, pauperism, criminality, and various other social defects including prostitution, sexual perversion and other types of immoral behaviour. Supporters of eugenics also believed that these groups had a higher reproductive rate than other people. One of the most dominant and recurrent themes of eugenics philosophy in the late 19th and early 20th century was the emphasis on this link between mental retardation and criminality, and the consequent "menace" which mental deficiency posed to society. Many prominent Canadians of that era were advocates of eugenics philosophy and eugenic sterilization, including Dr. E.W. McBride, Professor Carrie Derick and Dr. Helen MacMurchy. Support for eugenic sterilization was also expressed in the 1920s by many prominent Alberta women, including Emily MURPHY, Louise MCKINNEY and Nellie MCCLUNG.

Sexual Sterilization Laws

Eugenics philosophy was highly influential in the enactment of sexual sterilization laws in North America in the early part of the 20th century. This type of legislation was passed in many states in the United States, and in 2 Canadian provinces: Alberta (in 1928) and British Columbia (in 1933). The legislation in Alberta established a Eugenics Board with the power to authorize the sexual sterilization of certain individuals, including those who were "psychotic" or "mentally defective," in order to eliminate "the risk of multiplication of the evil by transmission of the disability to progeny" or the risk of "mental injury either to the individual or to his or her progeny." The Alberta legislation was repealed in 1972. During the 44 years in which the legislation was in effect, the Eugenics Board approved 4725 cases for sterilization, of which 2822 were actually carried out. The legislation in British Columbia, which was used much less often than in Alberta, was repealed in 1973. In 1996 an Alberta court awarded approximately $750 000 in damages to a woman who was wrongfully sterilized under the Alberta legislation.