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Pownal State School and Law on Sterilization

This year the name of the institution was changed from the School for the Feeble Minded to Pownal State School.

1925 Public Law Chapter 33
Title: Chapter 33. An Act to Change Name of the Maine School for Feeble Minded.
1925 Maine Public Laws, Chapter 33

In that same year, the 82nd Maine Legislature Maine passed a sterilization law to “prevent reproduction of feeble-mindedness or in treatment of mental disease.” One did not want those who had not “adapted” to modern society to have children who also would be the less fit. It usually applied more to women than men.

1925 Maine Sterilization Law

At the hearings on this bill, the Superintendent of the school, Stephen Vosburgh, spoke in favor of sterilization in terms both economic and eugenic:

Newspaper clipping from the Lewiston Evening Journal, March 27, 1925 with the headline, "Sterilization of Defectives".
Lewiston Evening Journal, March 27, 1925

Some women at Pineland were told they could not be released unless they had the surgery. The practice of sterilization continued through the 1960s.

Neither social Darwinism nor eugenics had any scientific basis.

Newspaper clipping from the Portland Press Herald, January 6, 1926, with the headline: "Segregate Feeble-Minded To Stop Petty Crime, Urges Judge Sanborn – Advises Sterilization of Women of Limited Mentality and Industrial Guidance for Both Sexes by Government"
Portland Press Herald, January 6, 1926
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Theme Alert!


Values Check

Who and what do we value in our society? How do we determine someone’s “worth”, and whether they are deserving of help when they need it? Are all people really equal – and do we treat everyone as equally human?

People with developmental disabilities were sent to institutions because they were seen as useless or even dangerous to society. Their value in a place like Pineland rested on their potential for being trained to do menial labor – a Pineland resident could potentially get a furlough or even release from the institution if they could show that they could work.

In general, people with developmental disabilities throughout our history have been dismissed, patronized, and dehumanized. Doctors assumed that people with developmental disabilities didn’t feel pain, caretakers believed that they did not need friendships or hobbies or someone to communicate with, and society saw them as dangerous and unfit.

There were also people and moments in history that shifted our assumptions about the value of people with developmental disabilities – President Kennedy’s experience of loving his sister with disabilities led to huge policy shifts that impacted people with developmental disabilities across our country, and the brave self-advocates who organized a civil rights movement led directly to another president signing the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The question must be posed, what is the value of all potential members of the community, with or without disability, to the very health and fiber of the community?