Forced Sterilization in the US

The US has a subversively checkered past regarding the issue of forced sterilization. Throughout the twentieth century and even particular cases in the 21st, women were forced to give up their reproductive rights, most of the time without their knowledge.

The 20th century brought a rash of sterilizations of those deemed detrimental to society. What this translated into was Mexican Americans, Native, Persons of Color, Prison inmates, the Disabled, those deemed promiscuous and those considered Mentally Defective.

From 1970-1976, 25-50% of Native American women in a range of Tribes in their child bearing years were sterilized, often directly after giving birth. Some as young as age 10 were impacted. In Mississippi it was known as a “Mississippi appendectomy “. Two girls undergoing tonsillectomies came away with tubal ligations. Generally speaking, doctors enforced the cutting of Fallopian tubes or hysterectomies, often under threat of putting existing children into foster care and taking away welfare benefits and food stamps.

Puerto Rican women also experienced eugenics. Thirty percent of women were unable to have children by 1965. The governor at the time said there were too many unskilled laborers and not enough jobs on the island. Sterilization ended up becoming the preferred choice of birth control. This was a major upheaval of the country’s largely Catholic society.

Mexican American women were victims of this edict as well. They were considered inferior with their children being “drains of the system”. Mexican immigrants were considered as being of low moral character sexually and criminally. Plus their children were considered “anchors”.

Women of Color were similarly held to a different standard than white society, particularly those of low income status. In the first half of the twentieth century, 60,000 people were sterilized. There were 32 states that empowered officials in medical, social work and state institutions to sterilize those considered “unfit”.

From 1897-1909, several states enforced sterilizations on those with mental handicaps. In Buck vs. Bell, Carrie Buck was sterilized because she was labeled promiscuous after being raped and becoming pregnant. With an IQ of 75, she was considered “feeble minded”. Her child was taken away from her and judged an imbecile when but a few months old. When she grew up she was sterilized. Carrie’s mother had her out of wedlock and Chief Justice Wendell Holmes decried that three generations of imbeciles in the same family was enough.

Certain states are considering reimbursements to these women but no amount of money can make up for a lifetime of missed opportunities and joy. And forced sterilizations are still happening in some cases in prison populations. The U.S. needs to make restitution and unequivocally end this practice.

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