Attitudes began to change as the 19th century came to a close. People labeled feeble-minded were increasingly seen as a burden, even a threat, to society. Many politicians, educators, and other Hoosier reformers were adopting the notion of eugenics, a theory of better breeding and human improvement thought to be based on science. In 1907, Indiana became the first state in the U.S. to legislate mandatory sterilization. Although the targets of this and later versions of the legislation also included criminals, the “insane,” and people with epilepsy, its victims over the following six decades were largely institutionalized people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. The “Indiana Plan,” as it came to be known, anticipated similar measures in other states long before the eugenic policies of Nazi Germany.
Dr. Harry Clay Sharp, a prison physician in Jeffersonville, Indiana, was influential in the movement to enact legislation in Indiana and nationally. He advocated vasectomies as a way to prevent the transmission of “degenerate” traits. The Indiana Eugenics History and Legacy centenary project has shed light on the history and significance of the 1907 law.