The Reproductive Rights Of The Developmentally Disabled

Essay, Research Paper

Sterilization of the developmentally disabled or the mentally retarded is an issue that has long been debated in America. Mental retardation is defined as the inability to learn normally and develop mentally. Traditionally in America if a mentally retarded person was born to a family, that family had 2 choices- take care of the child at home, or it was strongly recommended that the child was sent to a state run institution or hospital. The state institution was where this person would spend his or her entire life. Unfortunately these hospitals were often huge warehouses of people with disabilities, or mental illnesses. These hospitals offered no contact with the community to the people that lived there, and were often poorly run, and patients were over medicated, and sometimes abused. The sterilization of persons with mental retardation began as a method of birth control in state hospitals and was carried on with the idea that the mentally retarded will not be able to care for their children or that they will produce more mentally retarded children.

A mentally retarded person exhibits a low level of intelligence and impaired adaptive behavior; Biomedical specialists typically view retardation as the manifestation of an impaired brain. Other experts emphasize the importance of social and cultural influences in defining retardation; proponents of this viewpoint consider intelligence relative, depending on the social setting (Farber 21).It should be noted that in the past, children of unwed mothers, and immigrants were often labeled as mentally retarded as well. The majority of people though, that do have developmental disabilities are only considered mildly retarded and are able to function in society having the ability to hold jobs and develop and maintain relationships and live independently if they have access to education and the community.

Early in the twentieth century the plight of the metal retarded was ignored or dealt with primarily in state institutions. In addition authorities regarded mentally retarded women as being sexually promiscuous and as producing many illegitimate children (Farber 29). Because of this belief many retarded women would be placed in state institutions at the onset of puberty and sometimes released when they reached menopause. Many people have advocated sterilization for the retarded. Nobel Prize winning physicist William Schockley is quoted saying that he advocated sterilization for people with low IQs and supported a sperm bank for geniuses. A letter from Ben wood, a father of IQ testing stated his beliefs at the education testing service in 1972 when he said:

It may be said in all soberness that professional reliefers and most other indigents who produce children thereby commit crimes against humanity which are fully as serious as many acts now considered felonies. They have no moral right to produce such children and therefore should have no legal right to immunity from punishment that constructively fits the crime, such as some form of painless sterilization of both guilty parents, which would be permanent.Before 1930 there were numerous elite groups interested in the problems of the mentally retarded. Some of them were connected with eugenics and sterilization. However, in the early 1900?s several states had already passed laws permitting the sterilization of the mentally retarded. These laws were enacted in the belief that 90% of feeblemindedness was familial in origin (Baumeister 32).

Actions have been taken to reverse these laws in recent years mostly because of the backlash of the mentally retarded that have been unknowingly sterilized, and because of human rights advocate?s. In the Supreme Court case Skinner V. Oklahoma, the courts decided that ?Involuntary sterilization infringes upon the fundamental rights of man to procreate and have children?. But still in this country 40 states deny a retarded person the right to marry, supposedly because mentally retarded individuals are not competent marriage partners. However, in society about one out four marriage ends in divorce and the abuse of children and spouses goes on every day. By these standards most people with normal IQ?s would not be seen as good partners or parents. The other excuse for sterilization is that the mentally retarded will give birth to more babies with developmental problems. Today even this argument holds little ground. Present knowledge indicates that most mental retardation is not genetically caused and therefore cannot be inherited by following generations (Presidents 33).

Because of the stigma of mental retardation many mentally retarded couples are just learning now that they are unable to produce children. In Kendevill Indiana, at the age of 15, Linda Sparkman was sterilized unknowingly and is now suing Judge Harold D. Stump for allowing it to happen. The Judge, who insists that Mrs. Sparkman is ?Severely retarded?, had not told her beforehand that she would be sterilized. He had not appointed a lawyer to look out for the girl?s interests, nor had he given her a right to object to the operation. He did not make his sterilization order public or even record it in the imposing well kept courthouse where he resides (Mann A1). This case is extremely important in that the Supreme Court is deciding to review the handing of the Sparkman cause in order to decide if there is ?any conduct by a judge so egregious that the usual immunity from lawsuits provided to members of the bench should be removed? (Mann A1). Mrs. Sparkman and her husband Leo have sued Judge Stump for 3.25 million dollars claiming he has violated their human rights. Indiana law does still permit sterilization of the ?Insane feeble minded or epileptic, but only if the individual is institutionalized and if he or she is notified beforehand of the operation.?

Sterilization of the mentally retarded is an issue that has divided the country

for years. Because of human rights activists these cases are finally few and far

between. The future does hold many issues that will reopen these cases such as

the new era of genetic testing. Should we fear tests for genetic abnormalities

will cause discrimination against those with positive tests, and should we spend

precious public and private funds developing testing methods for every conceivable

genetic cause of mental retardation? These questions lay unanswered, but as state

institutions shut down, and the mentally retarded are finally being integrated

into the society and community that was taken away from them we need to rid ourselves

of the ideas that kept them hidden for so long, and help them join our society.

We are all humans, and in America we are granted the God given rights to life,

liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That should include the developmentally

disabled and their right to have a family, and belong to one.

Baumeiser, Alfred A. ?Mental Retardation? Random House. 1969Cowley, Geoffrey. ?Testing the Science of Intelligence? Newsweek. 24 Oct. 1994 56-60.Faber, Bernard. ?Mental Retardation in Society? Brown, 1973.Hamilton, Anne. ?Gentic Testing? The Hardford Current. 14 June 1995 A19Lemann, Niholas. ?The Great Sorting? Atlantic Monthly Sept. 1995 84+Mann Jim. ?Suit is Linda Sparkman?s Only Recompense? Baltimore Sun 27 Nov. 1987

A1, 3.

Presidents Council on Mental Retardation. [Washington D.C.] 1989 32-33


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