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Association for Voluntary Sterilization Records

Identifier: SW0015

Scope and Content

The Association for Voluntary Sterilization records include: minutes, correspondence, memoranda, financial records, newspaper clippings, reports, legal documents, conference proceedings, and annual statistics showing sterilizations in state institutions. The records also include a limited number of photographs, audiotapes and films. A small portion of the records consists of the personal papers of Robert Latou Dickinson (1861-1950), a gynecologist who was active in maternal health and birth control organizations and who served as chairman of the AVS medical and scientific committee. The Dickinson papers contain correspondence, manuscripts, medical drawings, articles, and newspaper clippings.

The AVS records document the association's efforts to: disseminate information to doctors, organizations, and the public; support legal action to make sterilization procedures available; and provide individuals desiring sterilization with financial assistance and referrals to cooperating doctors and clinics. They chronicle the evolution of the organization's program from advocacy for the compulsory sterilization of individuals with mental illness and developmental or physical disabilities to an emphasis on voluntary sterilization as a legitimate birth control technique. The records also provide a rich resource on the medical, legal, and socio-economic aspects of sterilization and related issues, including reproductive rights, population control, and policy issues relating to women’s access to sterilization operations.

The records of the association's predecessors, in particular The Sterilization League of New Jersey, reflect contemporary attitudes towards mental illness, disabilities, and eugenics. They document efforts by one segment of the eugenics movement in the United States to promote compulsory sterilization as a means of improving human "racial stock" and alleviating social problems related to inherited conditions or the care of poor, institutionalized, and chronically ill persons.

More recent AVS records document international educational and technical assistance programs for voluntary sterilization that were developed through the International Project of the Association for Voluntary Sterilization with assistance from USAID. These materials reflect the association's rapid shift to international programs and its growing emphasis on international population control, family planning, and women's reproductive health in developing nations during the 1970s. In particular, the records document grants to fund local or regional organizations and programs or to provide equipment. They also provide information on the establishment, funding and organization of IPAVS as well as its administration and finances.


  • 1929-1981
  • Majority of material found within 1945-1977

Language of Materials


Use of Materials

Most of the records are open for use in Social Welfare History Archives reading room. Access to portions of the records is restricted. Contact the archives for further information on access restrictions.


Please contact the Archivist for copyright information.

Historical Note

The Association for Voluntary Sterilization (AVS) promoted the benefits of voluntary sterilization as a means of family planning and population control. Its predecessor, The Sterilization League of New Jersey, was formed in 1937 to promote the eugenic sterilization of the physically and developmentally disabled and persons with mental illness. Between 1943 and 1964, the organization changed its name several times. It was known successively as Birthright (1943-1950), Human Betterment Association of America (1950-1962), and Human Betterment Association for Voluntary Sterilization (1962-1964) before becoming AVS in 1965. The name changes reflected the association's growing emphasis on voluntary sterilization as a means of birth control and ongoing efforts to disassociate itself from eugenic sterilization.

The Sterilization League of New Jersey was formed January 9, 1937 at an organizational meeting called by Marian S. Norton (later Olden), chairman of the Princeton League of Women Voters' department of social hygiene. During the mid 1930s, Norton had worked for the introduction of sterilization legislation in the New Jersey legislature, conducted studies of sterilization in the United States and abroad, and corresponded with persons interested in sterilization. In 1936 she was invited by the New Jersey League of Women Voters to form a committee to seek adoption of a model sterilization bill. These efforts ended in an impasse. As a result, Norton proposed the formation of the Sterilization League of New Jersey in December, 1936 and hosted the organizational meeting in her home in January, 1937. Norton became the secretary of the League and served the organization in varying capacities from 1937 to 1948. The first president was Thomas L. Zimmerman, a judge in the Bergen County Juvenile Court. In its early years, the small, Princeton-based League conducted an educational program of publications and exhibits designed to promote sterilization as a means to control physical, mental, and social disease. It also continued to work towards passage of a sterilization bill in the New Jersey legislature, but was unsuccessful.

In January, 1943, the League voted to expand its program to become a national sterilization organization under the name Sterilization League For Human Betterment. However, friends and relatives of Ezra S. Gosney, founder of the Human Betterment Foundation (a California-based organization) apparently objected to use of "Human Betterment." On April 12, 1943, the League became Birthright, Inc., a national, non profit, educational organization dedicated to fostering "all reliable and scientific means for improving the biological stock of the human race" and ensuring that "there should be no child in America that has not the complete Birthright of a sound mind in a sound body and that has not been born under proper conditions." H. Curtis Wood Jr became president of Birthright in 1945. He served until 1961 and continued as a medical consultant until 1973. Under his leadership, the organization worked to improve the understanding and appeal of sterilization among the general public; promote sterilization to medical and social work professionals; and make sterilization procedures more available. It also attempted to minimize its former emphasis on eugenic sterilization.

In an effort to find a name more descriptive of Birthright's changing functions, members present at a June 23, 1950 special membership meeting voted to assume the name, Human Betterment Association of America. At approximately the same time, following formation of a medical and scientific committee chaired by Robert L. Dickinson, the Association opened a New York City office in Dickinson's studio in the New York Academy of Medicine. (The Princeton office was eventually closed.) During the 1950s, the Association continued to expand its education, research, and service functions. It conducted fact finding studies in the "medical, legal, eugenic, psychological, and socioeconomic aspects" of sterilization; disseminated information on sterilization to groups and individuals; and referred individuals seeking sterilization to specialists who would perform the procedure. Continued concern about its ability to develop full public understanding of the meaning and use of voluntary sterilization led Association members present at the 1962 annual membership meeting to change the Association's name to the Human Betterment Association for Voluntary Sterilization. In 1964, "Human Betterment" was dropped and the organization became the Association for Voluntary Sterilization.

During John Rague's tenure as executive director (1963-1972), AVS conducted a widespread public information campaign on the advantages of voluntary sterilization as a means of birth control. AVS speakers, primarily H. Curtis Wood, Jr., appeared on TV and radio programs and toured the country advocating voluntary sterilization. AVS also continued its referral service and provided financial assistance for sterilization procedures through a revolving loan fund established by attorney Graham French. In addition, AVS worked to improve access to sterilization through the courts. In conjunction with Zero Population Growth and the American Civil Liberties Union, AVS mounted "Operation Lawsuit" in1971 to 1973. "Operation Lawsuit" actively sought out possible litigants for lawsuits against hospitals that refused to perform sterilization procedures. The success of the lawsuits and increasingly widespread acceptance of sterilization for birth control made it possible for the Association to shift its focus to medical research. The new focus was implemented under the leadership of Charles T. Faneuff, who succeeded Rague as executive director in November, 1972, and Ira Lubell, who replaced Faneuff in August, 1973. Lubell served until 1981, when he was succeeded by Hugo Hoogenbloom.

During the1970s, AVS also increased its international work. As early as December, 1966, a Temporary Organizing Committee for the International Association for Voluntary Sterilization was created to promote voluntary sterilization around the world, with an emphasis on developing nations. In May, 1972, AVS received a grant from United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to conduct an international conference on the role of voluntary sterilization and to establish international educational and technical assistance programs for access to safe, voluntary sterilization procedures. With the help of the grant, the International Project of the Association for Voluntary Sterilization (IPAVS)became an increasingly important segment of the association's work. Gradually, international activities became the dominant component of the AVS program.

AVS changed its name to the Association for Voluntary Surgical Contraception (AVSC) during the 1980s, was renamed AVSC International in 1994, and became EngenderHealth in 2001.

Sources for the history of the Association for Voluntary Sterilization include:

  1. The Association for Voluntary Sterilization Records, 1929-1981, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries.
  2. VanEssendelft, William R. "Association for Voluntary Sterilization." inSocial Service Organizations, edited by Peter Romanofsky. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978.


112 Linear Feet


Records of an organization advocating voluntary sterilization as a means of birth control and limiting population growth. Includes records of predecessor organizations that promoted eugenic sterilization. Contains primarily: minutes, correspondence, clippings, financial records, reports, and statistics showing sterilizations by state. Topics include: eugenic sterilization of mentally ill and developmentally disabled persons; medical, legal, and socio-economic aspects of sterilization; efforts to educate doctors, social workers, and the public about sterilization; referrals and financial assistance for individuals seeking sterilization; lawsuits against hospitals that denied sterilization procedures; regional and international voluntary sterilization programs in Appalachia and developing countries; public responses for and against sterilization; and the administration of AVS and its predecessors.


The AVS records are arranged into nine series.

  1. 1. Administrative Records, 1929-1980
  2. 2. Robert L. Dickinson Papers, 1923-1951
  3. 3. Financial Records, 1944-1974
  4. 4. Correspondence, 1945-1974
  5. 5. Referrals and Financial Assistance, 1957-1981


  6. 6. Legal Affairs, 1948, 1971-1975
  7. 7. Sterilization Statistics, 1935-1969
  8. 8. International Project, Association for Voluntary Sterilization (IPAVS), 1962-1981
  9. 9. Publicity and Publications, 1949-1976

Other Finding Aid

Unpublished inventory available. Please contact Archives for more information.

Acquisition Information

The AVS records were given to the Social Welfare History Archives by the association in 1967. Following the initial gift, six separate shipments of records were given to the archives between 1972 and 1979. A final shipment was received in 1982.

Processing and Finding Aid Information

The AVS records were arranged and described as three distinct collections as new materials were acquired by the archives between 1967 and 1982. Formerly, the records were described in three separate finding aids, making it necessary for patrons to consult multiple documents in order to obtain complete information on the AVS records. As part of a project to mount finding aids online, the archives has merged the information about the AVS records into one comprehensive finding aid.

Association for Voluntary Sterilization Records
Francis Blouin and W. Scott Jessee; revised by David Klaassen and Linnea M. Anderson.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Revision Statements

  • 8/12/2016: removed series level dates from collection level description

Collecting Area Details

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