It’s 75 years since the U-S Supreme Court upheld laws that let public authorities sterilize people considered unfit to have children. In the early 20th century, Iowa was among the 30 states that passed laws okaying forced sterilization. Kristin Hessler, a teaching fellow in ethics at Iowa State University, says many people thought they were doing well.The law let authorities order sterilization for epileptics, alcoholics, habitual criminals or anyone judged “feebleminded.” Hessler says today people are free to make their own decisions on bearing children.Hessler says people using what we know about human genes to predict, avoid or try and treat disease are seen today as being on the “safe side” of life-improving measures, but she says it’s a slippery slope. Hessler says while Iowa apparently took its mandatory sterilization law off the books in the mid-1970s, people still struggle with their own childbearing decisions, now they can get a look at their chances for genetic disorders. She says the decisions we make using that genetic information show our value judgments. Hessler says that’s a good reason not to try and make official public policy on who should have children. She says there might be room to use genetic therapies to treat or cure genetic disease and make sure children are born healthy, but Hessler says it wouldn’t be okay to aim for perfect people as she says out our idea of what’s “perfect” changes a great deal over time. As many as two thousand people may have been forced to undergo sterilization in Iowa from 1911 to 1974.
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