Rhode Island

Number of Victims
This state did not have a compulsory sterilization law, and there are no records of anyone being sterilized against his/her will (Largent, p.72).

Passage of Law(s)
In 1974 it became legal, for both doctors and patients, to be voluntarily sterilized. However, it was a felony for a doctor to sterilize anyone under 18 years old unless it was necessary to preserve his or her life or health (Bush, p. 115).

Process of the law
It is difficult to find information about sterilization and eugenic laws in Rhode Island, mainly due to the fact that they never kept records of their legislative session (Caron, p. 38). Though several eugenic sterilization laws were presented and were debated twice by legislators, they never passed in Rhode Island. Legislators claimed that sterilization was not a matter that could be settled on a statewide level; it was something to be decided between the patient and physician only (Caron, p. 12).

Precipitating Factors
In the mid 1800’s the number of children native Rhode Islanders were having was declining, while the number of children immigrants were having was rising (Caron, p. 19).

Frequently Rhode Island differed from the national norm when it came to enacting laws and regulations, even with other New England States Rhode Island often had a different stance on matters (Caron, p. 12). In the early 19th century Rhode Island enacted a law prohibiting abortion and only held the male responsible for the crime, making it one of only two states to exempt women from charges relating to unlawful implementation of abortion (Caron, p. 12). Contrary to Rhode Island's strict policy on abortion, Rhode Island was the only New England state that made the use of contraceptives legal (Caron, p. 12). Rhode Island also opened a birth control clinic to cater to the needs of its citizens, which was staffed with respectable male doctors contrary to other freestanding birth control clinics that were staffed mostly with female physicians (Caron, p. 12).

Catholicism was the major denomination in urban areas of the 1850s, however, this lead only to the increase of the Know-nothing-Party (Caron, p. 36). The Know nothing party was anti-Catholic, which is probably the reason that abortion was then made legal, for doctors and women, in the state. By the 1860s they had removed all antiabortion laws (Caron, p. 24) and by the 20th century, even with the change to Catholicism as the main religion, Rhode Island was the only state in New England that did not ban the distribution of birth control (Caron, p. 12).

Eugenic sterilization laws that failed to pass the Rhode Island legislature may have also been influenced by the work of Charles Davenport who in 1912 gave a lecture entitled "The Importance of Field-Work for the State of Rhode Island"(Bix, p. 632). Davenport argued that Rhode Island could benefit from a task force of field-workers to identify individuals that may be draining the states resources.

Marriage Restrictions
By 1940 Rhode Island had instituted a statute prohibiting marriage of mentally incompetent people, and that any marriage of an incompetent person would be a violation of the statute, and the marriage would become void (Schuler, p. 303).  Rhode Island used the terms “idiots”, “Imbeciles”, and “feebleminded” to describe people who were restricted from marriage, though the definition of these terms was never defined (Schuler, p. 305). A marriage of an insane person or one unable to understand the nature of a marriage contract would also be considered void (Schuler, p. 312), though no attempt to define “insane” was made.

Groups Targeted and Victimized
Western states had prohibited marriages between white natives and Asian immigrants, and eventually imbeciles, epileptics, and feebleminded women under 45 were also prohibited from getting married (Caron, p. 53). Rhode Island targeted idiots, imbeciles and feebleminded persons, as well as poor Irish people (Dowbiggin 1997, p. 58). Dowbiggin (1997) states that "Rhode Island's mental health care system officially defined mental illness as little other than a form of combined dependence and deviance" (p. 59). Rhode Island's "system of dual care" which was developed to support both the curably and incurably insane, was based primarily on factors unrelated to health. These factors, including wealth, nationality, and social standing helped to identify those patients that would receive treatment and those that were deemed incurable (Dowbiggin 1997, p. 58).

 Noted Hospitals and Institutions
Though no sterilizations occurred at these hospitals and institutions, they are notable as enforcing eugenic ideals of segregating the “unfit” from normal society.

History of Butler Hospital
Picture of Butler Hospital  Picture of Butler Hospital in Providence. Source: http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~asylums/butler_rh/index.html
Butler Hospital opened in 1847 in Providence (Dowbiggin 1997, p. 49). Due to state policies regarding the insane, many people thought this was a great place to work (Dowbiggin 1997, p. 58). For psychiatrists, Butler, a privately owned hospital established by several wealthy philathropists, offered relief from the financial pressures at government funded institutions. Butlers also was notable for it's system of care for both the curable and incurable patients. With the spike in immigrants in the 1850s, especially the poor Irish, Butler became overcrowded and another hospital was needed. The formation of a state-level facility was intended to relieve Butler of "the Insane Poor" (Dowbiggin 1997, p. 59). Eventually problems with overcrowding caused treatment quality at the state institution to diminish exponentially, earning the facility a reputation of patient abuse. On the other hand Butler nearly recruited wealthy potential clients by advertising the luxury of it's segregated accomodations designed for upper-class patients (Dowbiggin 1997, p. 61).  Although Butler tended to cater to wealthier patients, it also remained dependent on donations from the surrounding community so it couldn't market itself exclusively to the affluent. In order to retain it's status as a charitable organization it was forced to continue to care for members of the surrounding commuity even if they were incurable. Psychiatrist, G. Alder Blumer, the medical superintendent at Butler viewed chronic patients negatively not just because of their financial burden but also because they took spaces that could otherwise be filled with "acute cases" which urgently require treatment (Dowbiggin 1997, p. 62). Over time Butler Hospital became even more focused on curing mental illness, this in turn led to the realization in the early 1900s that one may benefit from treatment at Butler even if an individual hadn't been committed (Dowbiggin 1997, p. 63). Butler is also notable for being one of the institutions visited by the famous reformer Dorothea Dix.

The Butler Hosptial continues to operate as a mental health facility in Providence, Rhode Island. Although the role of Butler in the eugenic movement in the United States is not mentioned on their website, they do offer tours of the facility that explain the facility's history (Butler Hosptial).
History of the Ladd School
Picture of the Ladd SchoolThe Ladd School. Source: http://www.artinruins.com/arch/?id=rip&pr=laddschool
The Ladd School (Joseph H. Ladd Center) was built for the mentally handicapped. Originally named the Rhode Island School for the Feebleminded, and was opened in 1907. The school started as a colony, where patients lived in small cottages and "worked in a rural setting doing small chores, farming, and later making of clothes and household items" as opposed to other institutional settings ("The Ladd School"). In 1909 an all girls dormitory was built on the grounds. At this time the boy’s dormitory was completely full with a waiting list.  The school changed its name to the Exeter School in 1917 with the change in public opinion about the term “feebleminded” being derogatory.  Dr. Joseph Ladd, for whom the school was eventually named, retired in 1956 "amidst a steady and growing controversy over his policies" ( Rhode Island Art in Ruins, "The Ladd School"). In 1986 people tried to get the school to close because of alleged abuse cases, and Rhode Island wanted to remove such institutions from its mental health programs. The institution, however, did not close until 1993 and has since been demolished. In 2000 plans to redevelop the property initially suggested using the land for business development. Despite several different plans proposed for the land, voters in 2002 approved a bond for a state fire academy and state police headquarters to be built on the land.

Advocates in Action, a statewide self-advocacy organization, is in the process of creating a documentary about the Ladd School entitled "The Best Judgment: The Complex Legacy of the Joseph H. Ladd Center".

History of the Howard Reservation
The Boys Dormitories at the Boys Training SchoolThe Sockanosset Chapel at the Howard ReservationA Boys Dormitory at the Boys Training SchoolPhotos of the Boys Training School at Sockanosset. Available at http://www.cranstonri.com/generalpage.php?page=112
The Howard Reservation was home to the Boys Training School, which "was Rhode Island's first attempt to provide statewide social services through publicly supported and administered institutions" (City of Cranston, "Historic Locations: The Boys Training School"). The Howard reservation signified a change in how people who were poor, mentally ill, and criminal were treated. In 1866 the state Board of Charities and Corrections was created with the main goal of establishing a “state farm” with a house for criminals, a state asylum for the incurably insane, and an almshouse ("Chapel View: former Sockanosset Boys Training School"). The goals of this organization were to raise the standard of living for the “unfit” and to remove the burden of caring for the “unfit” from the greater society.  This hospital was based off of Blackwell’s island in NYC (Dowbiggin 1997, p. 58).  With the construction of this asylum came the philosophy of the asylum being custodial rather than curative (Dowbiggin 1997, p. 59).  It was assumed that institutionalization would force the patients into a controlled and organized environment where their every move could be controlled and watched, and they would no longer face temptation from the perils of normal society (Rhode Island Art in Ruins, "Chapel View: former Sockanosset Boys Training School"). The boys lived in cottages and worked on a farm (which produced most of their food) and also learned useful trades, such as blacksmith and carpentry. Due to a fire in the 1970’s a few of the buildings were destroyed, but the chapel, industrial building and a dorm remained and in the 2000’s these buildings were being refurbished under a 65 million dollar project to build “a city within a city” ( Rhode Island Art in Ruins, "Chapel View: former Sockanosset Boys Training School").

Many states failed to establish and keep sterilization laws due to catholic opposition (Dowbiggin 2008, p. 77); however this was not the case in Rhode Island. By the 20th century Catholicism had replaced the Know-nothing party as the main denomination of Rhode Island, but the church did not play a role in stopping eugenic laws. This is probably due to the fact that Catholics spent more time fighting the state’s stance on abortions since that concerned them more (Caron, p. 57). Even though the church had a strong influence on the state, they were unable to ban birth control, so it is unlikely that they would have been able to stop eugenic laws, if the state had wanted to pursue them. However, the catholic community was able to fight insurance companies so that they would fully cover abortion only in life-endangering situations (Caron, p. 239).

Opposition did occur when contraceptive clinics, which had the ability to perform sterilizations as well, opened and chose to serve all races and ethnicities. The opposition did not get far because Rhode Island provided everyone had a right to birth control (Caron, p. 100).

The Ladies Moral Reform Association of Rhode Island strongly opposed abortion because it allowed men to "cloak their sins"and "invaded the sanctuary of the home" (Caron, p. 36). Their group failed to influence state reform but their opinions helped to perpetuate ideas of female victimization by men, through their association of abortion and the prevalence of male seducers (Caron, p. 36).

Bix, A. S. 1997. "Voices of Eugenics Field-Workers: 'Women's Work' in Biology." Social Studies of Science, 27(4): 625-668.

Bush, D. 1983. "Fertility-Related State Laws Enacted in 1982." Family Planning Perspectives, 15(3): 111-116.

Butler Hospital. "Butler Bricks." Available at <http://www.butler.org/body.cfm?id=47>.

Caron, Simone M. 2008. Who Chooses?: American Reproductive History Since 1830. Gainsville: University of Florida Press.

City of Cranston, Rhode Island. "Historic Locations: The Boys Training School at Sockanosset." Available at <http://www.cranstonri.com/generalpage.php?page=112>.

Dowbiggin, Ian. 1997. Keeping America Sane: Psychiatry and Eugenics in the United States and Canada, 1880-1940. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Dowbiggin, Ian. 2008. The Sterilizaiton Movement and Global Fertility in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Largent, Mark A. 2008. Breeding Contempt: The History of Coerced Sterilization in the United States. Piscataway: Rutgers Press.

Schuler, Ruth V. 1940. “Some Aspects of Eugenic Marriage Legislation in the United States.” The Social Service Review 14 (2): 301-316.

Rhode Island Art in Ruins. "Chapel View: former Sockanosset Boys Training School." Available at <http://www.artinruins.com/arch/?id=redevelop&pr=sockanosset>.

Rhode Island Art in Ruins. "The Ladd School." Available at <http://www.artinruins.com/arch/?id=rip&pr=laddschool>.