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Techniques & Technologies

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Hysterectomy operation in progress.

Hysterectomy operation in progress.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London

Sterilisation is a surgical procedure commonly used as a permanent method of birth control. Techniques exist for both men and women. It is used today to avoid the possibility of pregnancy, although the procedure has sinister associations. At times it has been forced on individuals as part of state-sponsored eugenics-inspired campaigns which prevented reproduction by those deemed ‘defective’.

For men the technique most often performed is vasectomy, a simple operation that prevents sperm being ejaculated. It can occasionally be reversed. Women must undergo a more complex operation called tubal ligation, which closes the fallopian tubes to prevent fertilisation. Hysterectomy and castration are more drastic sterilisation operations. A hysterectomy removes a woman’s uterus. Castration removes the male testicles, but the option is almost entirely reserved for animals.

Compulsory sterilisation was a notorious cornerstone of eugenic policies in Nazi Germany; tens of thousands had forcibly undergone the operation by 1945. However, other countries have eagerly pursued sterilisation programmes, including Sweden, India, China and Japan. One of the most ‘effective’ campaigns was in the United States, where eugenics gained support in the early 20th century. Several individual states became the first jurisdictions to introduce compulsory sterilisation based on regulations. These were open to abuse. In 1932 the American Supreme Court voted in favour of compulsory sterilisation in some cases. Over several decades more than 60,000 individuals were forcibly sterilised, including criminals and people described as mentally ill’.


Related links

Techniques and Technologies:


M Largent, Breeding Contempt: The History of Coerced Sterilization in the United States (New Jersey/London: Rutgers University Press, 2007)

I Dowbiggin, The Sterilization Movement and Global Fertility in the Twentieth Century (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)


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