The Color of Forced and Coerced Sterilizations

Taylor Burton [2018] is a sociology major, writing mentor, and student research assistant at Grinnell College. Through her studies, Burton primarily focuses on racial and class oppression within the context of neoliberalism and capitalism. Outside of her academics, she participates in social justice activism through various student organizations at Grinnell College.

An often forgotten history of the United States is the history of the eugenics movement, which started in the 1920s and involved the eradication of certain populations through forced and coerced sterilization [1]. The theory of eugenics emerged within the public field as a means of justifying government law that was designed to protect the population from illnesses, mental and physical deficiencies, and immoral behavior. While scientists later debunked the validity of eugenics beliefs, the effects of the movement remained until the late 1970s. Importantly, “virtually every significant modernizing force between the two world wars” embraced the vocabulary of eugenics, which is why it was so hard to overcome [2]. The means through which the eugenics movement sought to accomplish its goal of eradicating what it saw as threatening the population was through forced and coerced sterilizations of women. Often such sterilizations were directed toward women of color, as they were commonly seen as the most inferior, incapable, and immoral individuals. In the eyes of those who advocated for eugenics, to allow them to continue birthing children would have resulted in the tainting of the U.S population as a whole [3].

The eugenics movement first grew out of a response to Gregor Mendel’s release of information about the hereditability of physical traits. Once this work was published, eugenics proponents created a list of human traits and categorized them into either normal and healthy characteristics or abnormal and unhealthy characteristics. Those who were addicted to substances or engaged in behaviors such as prostitution were lumped into the immoral category. Based on the unhealthy, abnormal, and immoral traits that were identified, eugenics specialists would argue their undesirability and “feebleminded[ness]”, and therefore the need for their sterilization. Doing so would cure America of any social illnesses or deficiencies [4].

The most widely cited case of eugenics sterilization confirming its validity in the face of a woman who did not want such sterilization is the Buck v. Bell court case. The case took place in Virginia, in which the Virginia appellate court allowed a county court decision to order the sterilization of Carrie Buck, an 18 year old female who was institutionalized at the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble Minded. Because Buck did not want to be sterilized, she challenged the Virginia Statute on the grounds of substantive due process and equal protection grounds under the 14th amendment. Unfortunately for her, the court rejected her challenge, stating that her sterilization would be “better for the world”, as “three generations of imbeciles are enough” [5].

Many challenges to sterilization would be countered using the same rhetoric, and more. If the state could prevent such people from being born, then it wouldn’t have to deal with them as criminals, helpless individuals, or poor people needing welfare assistance. Some even framed sterilization as saving potential beings from having to live a difficult life of illness, immorality, or poverty by preventing them from being born in the first place [6]. Others blatantly called out the spreading “culture of single motherhood and their wish to decrease this, as they figured children born under single mothers would only continue this culture [7]. However, the main concern of the state was with overpopulation, the dissemination of state assistance, and the degradation of the population.

Under these justifications of eugenics-based sterilization laws, more than 2,000 sterilizations were done each year between 1929 and 1941, and between 60,000 and 70,000 individuals were sterilized by 1963 [8]. Not until World War II would eugenics start to decline due to awareness of the extensive Nazi sterilization program and the release of scientific information that discounted the validity of eugenics theory. By the 1960s and 1970s, most states that had experimented with eugenics repealed their sterilization laws. However, coercive sterilizations continued on a large scale in several states as late as the mid-1960s, and in a handful of states, involuntary sterilization laws remained [9].

Those who were most affected by the continuation of sterilization through lack of information and coercion were poor women of color. In the 1920s, African American women were operated on for sterilizations at a rate that exceeded their population. In California, for example, African Americans composed only 1% of California’s population while they accounted for 4% of the total sterilizations that took place there [10]. By the 1950s and 1960s, when sterilization was becoming less widely acceptable, African American women were still being subjected to sterilization as a means of punishment for bearing “illegitimate children” and as a means of incentive for the continuation of family assistance [11]. Between 1920 and 1974, a sterilization program in North Carolina sterilized over 7,600 victims; more than 60% of these individuals were black, and 99% were female [12]. Moreover, Native American women represented yet another, even more heavily targeted population for sterilization due to their dependence on the federal government, their small population, and their lack of benefits from the feminist movement of the 1960s. Between 1973 and 1976, the Indian Health Service sterilized 3,406 Native American women, 3,001 of which were of childbearing age [13]. Thus, it is clear after examining statistics of various states that were heavily engaged in sterilization that women of color were more often clear targets of the sterilization procedure.

When it comes to sterilization by lack of information, the targeting of women of color becomes even more visible. For example, a 1978 court case called Madrigal v. Quilligan involved 10 sterilized women who claimed that obstetricians at County General had given them unwanted operations. All of the women were monolingual Spanish speaking teens who had emigrated to California; they had all been approached just hours or minutes after giving labor, were not given information about the irreversibly of the procedure, and were not in a state of mind to give adequate consent. One of the women, Rebecca Figueroa, was specifically led to believe that the sterilization was a reversible procedure [14]. In June of 1973, two black sisters aged 12 and 14 were sterilized without their knowledge. The illiterate welfare mothers were convinced to sign an “X” for their names on medical forms that they believed would give the doctors permission to administer shots meant to prevent pregnancy [15]. In November 1970, a 26-year-old Native American woman requested a “womb transplant” in a Los Angeles physician’s office. While being examined, she was told by the doctor that she had previously been sterilized through a hysterectomy, which is a permanent and irreversible procedure. The unnamed woman had been completely unaware of this and was devastated, as she had plans to start a family [16].

Another means through which sterilization would commonly take place is through coercion. If we come back to the case of the Spanish speaking women in California, another woman’s story, Elena Orozco, reveals that she was told she could only get her hernia repaired if she agreed to a sterilization. She refused this offer repeatedly, and only changed her mind at the last minute when she was taken to deliver her child. Another doctor falsely told one of the Californian women that because she had too many children already, having more in the future would be dangerous for her, and sterilization was therefore the best option [17]. Aside from coercion inside of the doctor’s office after birth, many African American and Native American women were coerced in the 1970s in what would have been considered more acceptable ways to the public. For example, many welfare programs at the time would place benefit caps on women of color if they continued to have children and chose not to get sterilized. Of course, these benefit caps could be placed on poor white women as well, but were more often targeted toward women of color [18]. Essentially, black and indigenous women often had to choose between being able to survive and being able to grow their families due to harsh welfare sanctioning.

Lack of access to birth control was yet another reason why women of color were forced into “choosing” sterilization. In this case, electing sterilization was less of a choice and more of a necessary evil due to lack of other options. There were many women of color between the 1920s and 1970s who wanted to stave off pregnancy, but did not have access to birth control. Johanna Schoen states in “Between Choice and Coercion” that African American women were over-represented among those who elected for sterilization as they faced an increased “need for reliable contraceptives and greater difficulties in securing access to health services and contraceptive clinics” [19]. It is likely that not all of these black women wanted to prevent pregnancy forever, but were serious enough about preventing pregnancy at their current age that sterilization was the best option. We can assume that Native American women and Hispanic women, both of which have been marginalized in a similar manner to African American women, would have faced a similar problem of “choice”, should they have wanted to delay pregnancy.

Whether it be through force, lack of information, coercion, or lack of access to birth control, women of color faced the brunt of the sterilization efforts that followed the eugenics movement from the 1920s to the 1970s. This information should not be surprising given eugenics was all about eradicating inferiority, illness, disability, and immorality – all characteristics that were disproportionately used to describe any person of color between the 1920s and 1970s – from the U.S population. Remembering this history is important, especially as individuals today continue to recommend incentivizing “welfare queens” – who are envisioned to be primarily women of color – to take birth control. We must continue to question the ways in which the public health sector and the government work together to promote agendas that, while proposed as a method to protect society, may unfairly and disproportionately target certain groups within the population.

Notes

[1] Silver, Michael G. “Eugenics and Compulsory Sterilization Laws: Providing Redress for the Victims of a Shameful Era in United States History.” Washington Law Review. 72: 862-892. 2004.

[2] Dikotter, Frank, “Race Culture: Recent Perspectives on the History of Eugenics.” The American Historical Review. 103(2) 467-478. 1998, 467.

[3] Stern, Alexandra. “Sterilized in the Name of Public Health: Race, Immigration, and Reproductive Control in Modern California.” American Journal of Public Health. 95(7): 1128-1138. 2005.

[4] Silver, Michael G. “Eugenics and Compulsory Sterilization Laws: Providing Redress for the Victims of a Shameful Era in United States History.” Washington Law Review. 72: 862-892. 2004, 864-865.

[5] Ibid, 862-863

[6] Ibid

[7] Thomas, Susan L. “Race, Gender, and Welfare Reform: The Antinatalist Response.” Journal of Black Studies. 28(4): 419-436, 1998.

[8] Silver, Michael G. “Eugenics and Compulsory Sterilization Laws: Providing Redress for the Victims of a Shameful Era in United States History.” Washington Law Review. 72: 862-892. 2004, 863

[9] Ibid, 870

[10] Stern, Alexandra. “Sterilized in the Name of Public Health: Race, Immigration, and Reproductive Control in Modern California.” American Journal of Public Health. 95(7): 1128-1138. 2005, 1131.

[11] Ibid, 1132

[12] Silver, Michael G. “Eugenics and Compulsory Sterilization Laws: Providing Redress for the Victims of a Shameful Era in United States History.” Washington Law Review. 72: 862-892. 2004, 887

[13] Torpy, Sally. “Native American Women and Coerced Sterilization: On the Trail of Tears in the 1970s.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal. 24(2): 1-22. 2000, 7.

[14] Stern, Alexandra. “Sterilized in the Name of Public Health: Race, Immigration, and Reproductive Control in Modern California.” American Journal of Public Health. 95(7): 1128-1138. 2005, 1134.

[15] Torpy, Sally. “Native American Women and Coerced Sterilization: On the Trail of Tears in the 1970s.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal. 24(2): 1-22. 2000, 4.

[16] Ibid, 2.

[17] Stern, Alexandra. “Sterilized in the Name of Public Health: Race, Immigration, and Reproductive Control in Modern California.” American Journal of Public Health. 95(7): 1128-1138. 2005, 1134.

[18] Thomas, Susan L. “Race, Gender, and Welfare Reform: The Antinatalist Response.” Journal of Black Studies. 28(4): 419-436, 1998; Torpy, Sally. “Native American Women and Coerced Sterilization: On the Trail of Tears in the 1970s.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal. 24(2): 1-22. 2000, 9.

[19] Schoen, Johanna. “Between Choice and Coercion: Women and the Politics of Sterilization in North Carolina 1929-1975.” Journal of Women’s History. 13(1): 132-156. 2001, 136-137.

Further Reading

Johansen, Bruce. “Reprise/Forced Sterilizations: Native Americans and the “Last Gasp of Eugenics.” Native Americas. 15(4): 44. 1998.

Kendregan, Charles P. “Sixty Years of Compulsory Eugenic Sterilization: Three Generations of Imbeciles and the Constitution of the United States.” Chicago-Kent Law Review. 43(2): 123-145. 1996.

Pernick, Martin S. “Eugenics and Public Health in American History.” American Journal of Public Health. 87(11): 1767-1772. 1997.