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54 victims of Utah's eugenic sterilization program may still be alive today

An old photo of the Utah State Training School
Utah State Historical Society
Utah State Historical Society
Utah State Training School

The University of Utah released a study Wednesday about the possibility that there are victims of Utah’s eugenic sterilization program in the 20th century still alive today.

Eugenic sterilization came about at the beginning of the 20th century when eugenicists were worried that natural selection was not playing out as it should among humans and that those seen as “unfit” were reproducing more than those they saw as “fit.”

In Utah, eugenic sterilization was practiced at state facilities from 1925-1974. Under this program, those who were labeled as “feeble-minded" (a term that is no longer used today), could legally be sterilized in order to prevent them from producing more “feeble minded” offspring.

The author of the study is James Tabery, a University of Utah professor of philosophy who also works with the School of Medicine Center for Health, Ethics, Arts and Humanities. He said that many people are aware of this program but few are aware of how recently it ended.

“In many places, these ideas and practices continued up into the middle and even late 20th century," Tabery said. "And so, attention kind of shifted then to who are these victims of this assault? And is there any reason to think they might still be alive today? Because then that really hits home this idea that this wasn't just something that happened a century ago.”

It was this thinking that led Tabery and his co-authors to conduct this study into whether or not some of these victims might still be alive today.

The research team began by collecting data on individuals in the program from when it started until it ended 49 years later.

“And so of those 830 people for the information who we had — that's your birth, and then gender information," Tabery said, "and we knew that there was no confirmation of their death, we could estimate how many people might still be alive in 2023. And so that's where that 54 number comes from.”

The State of Utah has not acknowledged or apologized for the eugenic sterilization program, but Tabery said that is most likely because not many people are aware of it.

He said he hopes this study will bring it to the public’s attention.

Caitlin Keith is a general news reporter at UPR. She is from Lindon, Utah and is currently an undergrad student studying print journalism at USU. Caitlin loves to write and tell people’s stories. She is also a writer at the Utah Statesman. She loves to read, ski, play the cello and watch various TV shows.