Political Staff Writer: Harita Iswara
CW: discusses reproductive violence against women, eugenics, sterilization
With the recent uncovering by a whistleblower of forced sterilizations occurring at an ICE detention facility in Georgia, much attention has been brought to the history of the sterilization of Black and Brown women in the United States. The forced sterilization of Black and Brown women is an extremely important issue to discuss because of its sociopolitical ramifications and because of the immense amount of history attached to it. This issue is often left out of discussions about reproductive rights and justice, and has always been largely ignored by mainstream media due to the fact that forced sterilization primarily affects low income Black and Brown communities, and not middle class white women. In this article I will discuss the history of forced sterilization in the United States, the larger politics of eugenics, reproductive justice movements, and the current news about forced sterilizations occurring in the country.
History and Context:
The forced sterilization of black women, indigenous women, and women of color has long been an issue throughout history. Forced sterilization is the nonconsensual, coerced, permanent sterilization of a person, rendering them unable to reproduce. The issue begins with the eugenics movement, a movement dedicated to limiting the reproduction of populations of color because they were deemed biologically inferior by Western society. The creation of philosophy regarding power and race led to the creation of the eugenics movement, which in turn prompted the forced sterilization of Black women, indigenous women and women of color. The inception of eugenics began with Francis Galton, a relative of Charles Darwin, who coined the term and philosophy behind it in the late nineteenth century. The intent was to encourage reproduction through selective breeding that would yield “desirable traits,” based on white, heteronormative, cisgendered European ideas of “correct” and “desirable” genetic traits. This meant attempting to eliminate reproduction among populations with “less desirable traits,” which essentially meant non-Eurocentric traits. This European colonialist phenomenon was then employed by Western governments as a method of controlling populations of color, and has continued through today.
“Shortly thereafter, many intellectuals and political leaders (e.g., Alexander Graham Bell, Winston Churchill, John Maynard Keynes, and Woodrow Wilson) accepted the notion that modern societies, as a matter of policy, should promote the improvement of the human race through various forms of governmental intervention. While initially this desire was manifested as the promotion of selective breeding, it ultimately contributed to the intellectual underpinnings of state-sponsored discrimination, forced sterilization, and genocide.”
Though eugenics has not only been used in the United States, (ex. Nazi Germany), the institutionalization of eugenics into the United States government, medical field and subsequent industries is deeply systemic and extremely troubling, given the current implications. Women were often forced into signing consent forms while they were in labor and were betrayed by medical professionals in many other ways that were not publicized. Sometimes, they were told they needed a random medical procedure which ended up being a sterilization procedure. These practices, and other forms of deceptive and coercive medical practices were widely executed across medical facilities, hospitals and clinics across the country. Medical and scientific racism is a known factor in health care practices in this country. Forced sterilization is a physical manifestation of medical racism and deep institutionalization of eugenics and forced sterilization has impacted Black women, indigenous women and Latinx women to such extreme degrees, that many Black and Brown populations suffer from health problems and other complications. This violent offense against vulnerable populations was not left without backlash and opposition, but the historical harm inflicted by the US government and other agencies is irreversible.
Reproductive Justice Movements:
Discussions about reproductive rights have always been a topic of conversation in this country, but the politics of this discussion has often ignored the Black and Brown women who have been disproportionately affected by forced sterilization. When you think of the traditional discourse surrounding reproductive rights, you immediately think of Roe v. Wade, and the right to abortion. The conversation is largely about agency, choice (or the lack thereof) and the right to do whatever you want with your body. Reproduction and reproductive health is a very personal topic to some, while many people are extremely comfortable discussing it. Activism about reproductive justice is usually framed around the right to abortion, but the movement is not a single issue movement.
Indigenous women, Black women, Latinx women and their allies have been fighting for reproductive justice for decades, fighting for the right to make decisions about their own bodies, and to have agency in these decisions, without government interference. The main motivation for this activism was the thousands and thousands of women being sterilized by government agencies such as the Indian Health Service. This specific agency was formed as part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1955, and forcibly sterilized an estimated 70,000 indigenous women by the 1970s. This statistic, compared with the ⅓ of Puerto Rican mothers between age 20 and 40 being sterilized, and the 7,600 Black women sterilized in North Carolina alone by the 70s, paints a dark picture about the history of reproductive health for Black and Brown women in this country.
While these women and their supporters have been fighting for recognition and for these inhumane practices to end, their voices have seldom been heard, as things have barely changed. Organizations like Women of All Red Nations led the fight against sterilization in the 70s, and have continued to fight for government regulation. Looking at the pictures of protests and demonstrations across the country in the 70s and 80s, and reflecting on what practices still exist today, we can see that forced sterilization and other “population control” practices are so deeply ingrained in this country, that they have just been reborn into a new permutation of eugenics. From science experiments on enslaved Black women, to medical experiments of population control of indigenous women, to the current forced sterilizations of migrant Latinx women, it is clear that reproductive and bodily autonomy for Black and Brown women has never been a possibility. The fight for justice led by Indigenous, Black and Latinx women has had to continue because the government has never fully eliminated these horrific procedures.
In recent years, more attention has been drawn to the sterilization of Black and Brown women, with films, documentaries and books hitting the mainstream. With documentaries like No Más Bebés and Amá in the public eye, the hope is that more and more people will talk about the history of forced sterilizations, and bring to light the drastic and lasting effects of this procedure on the health of low income, Black and Brown women, and the overall health of their communities. The progressive fight for reproductive rights is moving towards discussing reproductive justice and being more inclusive in its approach, including Black and Brown women in the activism, but still falls short when including those who have been forcibly sterilized. With women having to fight multiple reproductive battles at once, it is understandable that not every issue is addressed, but it is for this reason that we have to do more as a society to acknowledge the harm that has been done, because it is irreversible.
The definition of reproductive justice must be expanded to include everyone who can reproduce or can’t reproduce, and should maintain that agency over one's body belongs to oneself only. Reproductive justice must be inclusive of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation and needs to be considered as important of a human rights issue as other issues deemed important by activist communities and the global population. This is an extremely complex issue that does not have an easy solution, but if we do not attempt to acknowledge the violence inflicted by the government upon Black and Brown women, we cannot claim that our fight for reproductive rights is solvable by simply upholding Roe v. Wade. With the latest news of forced sterilizations of migrant women in an ICE detention facility in Georgia, we see that this issue is still in existence, and that migrant women are just as vulnerable to this type of violence as the Black and Brown women in this country that have suffered for decades. This weaponization of power against vulnerable populations is merely a symptom of the colonialist and imperialist nature of the United States, which means that we cannot get rid of the problem easily. In order to end eugenics practices and deliver justice to those who have been harmed, we have to find solutions that will remove barriers for communities of color, and actively dismantle the systems of power that have allowed these practices to persist.