Skinner v. Oklahoma

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Skinner v. State of Oklahoma, ex rel. Williamson, 316 U.S. 535 (1942), was the United States Supreme Court ruling[1] that held that laws permitting the compulsory sterilization of criminals are unconstitutional as it violates a person's rights given under the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, specifically the Equal Protection Clause, as well as the Due Process Clause.[2][3][4] The relevant Oklahoma law applied to "habitual criminals", but the law excluded white-collar crimes from carrying sterilization penalties.


In 1935, the Supreme Court of Oklahoma ruled in favor of the Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act, which allowed the state to impose a sentence of compulsory sterilization as part of their judgment against individuals who had been convicted three or more times of crimes "amounting to felonies involving moral turpitude".[4] Exceptions to this ruling were those who committed what are considered white-collar crimes.

All defendants were provided with a jury trial organized by the State Attorney. The jury was asked whether it deemed sterilization necessary, and whether it believed sterilization would bring harm to the defendant's well-being; if so determined, the convicted would be punished by sterilization.[4] Most punitive sterilization laws, including the Oklahoma statute, prescribed vasectomy for males as the method of rendering the individual infertile, and salpingectomy for females.[4]

The Sterilization Act was first put to use in May 1936. Hubert Moore, a five-time convict, was the first individual the state had given an approved petition for sterilization. When other prisoners heard the news of the approved petition, they rioted and attempted to escape. Hubert Moore escaped from prison in June 1936.[4]

The second petition approved was for Jack T. Skinner, convicted once for stealing chickens and twice for armed robbery. In October 1936, he was convicted a fourth time and sentenced to sterilization. Skinner's lawyers, Heba Irwin Aston and Guy Andrews, took their appeal to the Supreme Court of Oklahoma, claiming jeopardization of Skinner's rights as given under the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution. The Supreme Court of Oklahoma ruled against the appeal 5 to 4, and maintained the sentence of sterilization.[4]

Skinner's lawyers challenged the ruling of the Supreme Court of Oklahoma by bringing an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. The oral arguments were heard May 6, 1942 and the Opinion of the court was given on June 1, 1942.[4]

Opinion of the Supreme Court[edit]

The Court held unanimously that the Act violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, because white-collar crimes, such as embezzlement, were excluded from the Act's jurisdiction.

Justice William O. Douglas concluded:

Oklahoma makes no attempt to say that he who commits larceny by trespass or trick or fraud has biologically inheritable traits which he who commits embezzlement lacks. We have not the slightest basis for inferring that line has any significance in eugenics, nor that the inheritability of criminal traits follows the neat legal distinctions which the law has marked between those two offenses. In terms of fines and imprisonment, the crimes of larceny and embezzlement rate the same under the Oklahoma code. Only when it comes to sterilization are the pains and penalties of the law different. The equal protection clause would indeed be a formula of empty words if such conspicuously artificial lines could be drawn.[5]

Furthermore, because of the social and biological implications of reproduction and the irreversibility of sterilization operations, Justice Douglas also stressed that compulsory sterilization laws in general should be held to strict scrutiny:

The power to sterilize, if exercised, may have subtle, far-reaching and devastating effects. In evil or reckless hands it can cause races or types which are inimical to the dominant group to wither and disappear. There is no redemption for the individual whom the law touches. Any experiment which the State conducts is to his irreparable injury. He is forever deprived of a basic liberty. We mention these matters not to reexamine the scope of the police power of the States. We advert to them merely in emphasis of our view that strict scrutiny of the classification which a State makes in a sterilization law is essential, lest unwittingly, or otherwise, invidious discriminations are made against groups or types of individuals in violation of the constitutional guaranty of just and equal laws.[5]

In a separate concurring opinion, Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone stated that while he concurred with Justice Douglas's opinion, he believed that, in his opinion, the Act violated Due Process Clause, specifically procedural due process, more than it violated the 14th Amendment. His main argument was that in order for legislation to convict and sterilize the defendant, there needed to be proof that criminal behavior could be inherited genetically, which the court had no proof of at the time. He cited Buck v. Bell, saying that because it has been proven that feeblemindedness is inheritable, sterilization is acceptable, but in the case of Skinner v. Oklahoma, it was not.[4][5]


The only types of sterilization which the ruling immediately ended were punitive sterilization; it did not directly comment on compulsory sterilization of the mentally disabled or mentally ill and was not a strict overturning of the Court's ruling in Buck v. Bell (1927). Furthermore, most of the over 64,000 sterilizations performed in the US under the aegis of eugenics legislation were not in prison institutions or performed on convicted criminals; punitive sterilizations made up only negligible amounts of the total operations performed, as most states and prison officials were nervous about their legal status, which were not affirmed in Buck v. Bell specifically, as possible violations of the Eighth ("cruel and unusual punishment") or Fourteenth Amendments ("Due Process" and "Equal Protection Clauses"). Compulsory sterilizations of the mentally disabled and mentally ill continued in the US in significant numbers until the early 1960s. Although many of their laws stayed on the books for many years longer, the last known forced sterilization in the United States occurred in 1981 in Oregon.[6] Federal law prohibits use of federal funds to sterilize "any mentally incompetent or institutionalized individual",[7] but states including California use state funds for tubal ligations. A 2013 report showed that between 2006 and 2010, at least 148 women were sterilized after childbirth while incarcerated in two California prisons. In violation of state rules passed in 1994, none of the cases were reviewed by a state oversight committee.[8]

Over a third of all compulsory sterilizations in the United States (over 22,670) took place after Skinner v. Oklahoma.[citation needed] The 1942 ruling, however, created a nervous legal atmosphere regarding these other forms of sterilizations and put a heavy damper on sterilization rates which had boomed since the Buck v. Bell ruling in 1927. After the discovery of the Nazi atrocities done in the name of eugenics, including the compulsory sterilization of 450,000 individuals in barely more than a decade, under a sterilization law, which drew heavy inspiration from American statutes, and the close association between eugenics and racism, eugenics, as an ideology, lost almost all public favor.[citation needed] In Equal Protection analysis, Skinner applied the compelling state interest test to punitive sterilization, and Buck applied the less rigorous rational basis test to compulsory sterilization of the mentally disabled.[citation needed]

In 2002, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that an inmate, incarcerated by the California Department of Corrections and serving a life sentence, was not permitted to inseminate his wife artificially because "the right to procreate is fundamentally inconsistent with incarceration". The Appellate Court distinguished the case from Skinner v. Oklahoma because "the right to procreate while incarcerated and the right to be free from surgical sterilization by prison officials are two very different things".[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Skinner v. Oklahoma, 316 U.S. 535 (1942).
  2. ^ Maggs, Gregory E. and Smith, Peter J. (2011) Constitutional Law. A Contemporary Approach. Thomson Reuters. p. 536. ISBN 978-0-314-27355-0
  3. ^ "The Supreme Court Invalidates Oklahoma's Sterilization Law. No. 782". Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. 33 (2): 163–165. 1942. JSTOR 1136423.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h "Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942) | The Embryo Project Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2020-11-26.
  5. ^ a b c "Skinner v. State of Oklahoma ex rel. Williamson, Atty. Gen. of Oklahoma". LII / Legal Information Institute. Retrieved 2020-11-26.
  6. ^ Sullivan, Julie (15 Nov 2002). "State will admit sterilization past". Portland Oregonian. Archived from the original on 18 November 2008. Retrieved 10 Aug 2016 – via People First of Oregon.
  7. ^ "Federal rules and California law on surgical sterilizations with federal funds".
  8. ^ "Female inmates sterilized in California prisons without approval". Archived from the original on 2014-12-22. Retrieved 2015-01-02.
  9. ^ Gerber v. Hickman, 00-16494 (9th Cir. 2002) ("By no stretch of the imagination, however, did Skinner hold that inmates have the right to exercise their ability to procreate while still in prison. The right to procreate while incarcerated and the right to be free from surgical sterilization by prison officials are two very different things.").

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