Many may think of forced sterilization as a thing of the past, a practice so heinous that there is no way it is still continued today. However, if the history of this practice tells us anything, it is that a target will always remain on the heads of the marginalized. The only thing that changes with time is the manner in which that target manifests.
Ableism and the demonization of mental health struggles play an extremely large role in the global history of involuntary sterilization. In the United States, California acted as a forced sterilization kingpin, passing 3 Asexualization Acts in 1909, 1913, and 1917. These legislative pieces targeted those who were ‘mentally ill’, ‘mentally deficient’, and ‘feebleminded’. These distinctions are placed in quotations, as many of the defining factors of such labels were essentially baseless, or racist/misogynistic in nature. For example, feeblemindedness was a label assigned to people who displayed promiscuity, criminality, or social dependency. Social dependency, of course refers to impoverished people. The promiscuity associated with feeblemindedness was often aimed at young women who had sexual partners outside of marriage or at a young age.
The American eugenics movement propelled sterilization ideology into the mainstream. During the early 1930’s, forced sterilization was heavily imposed upon young women with intellectual disabilities, based on the idea that they might have children they could not adequately care for, and thus add additional strain on social programs and systems. Additional targets of sterilization policy included those who were incarcerated, or occupants of psychiatric facilities. This targeting disproportionately affected Black and Latino men, and young women. Unfortunately, there were also a number of race specific sterilization programs, through which thousands of Native American, Black, and Latina women were forcibly sterilized. Six years after the passing of the Family Planning and Resource Act in 1970, 25% of Native American women of childbearing age had been sterilized.
Many of these sterilization procedures were carried out without the consent of the victim, with many laws requiring ‘permission’ from institutional leadership, whether it be an attending physician or superintendent. The frequency of these unjust procedures eventually stirred enough controversy that the matter of sterilizing persons diagnosed with mental illnesses was brought to the Supreme Court.
The Buck vs. Bell case, heard and decided in 1927, set the legal precedent that granted states the right to sterilize occupants of state institutions, whether they be prisons or hospitals. The court argued that nonconsensual sterilization did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment, and that it was beneficial as a whole as it was intended for the betterment of society. Epilepsy, imbecility, and feeblemindedness, were categorized as hereditary traits, and thus it was seen as imperative to prevent them from passing down. This ruling has not been overturned.
To no surprise, American eugenics, both in theory and in practice, came to inspire Nazis in Germany. California’s Asexualization Laws were the backbone of the Nazi Sterilization Law of 1934, which would effectively sterilize roughly 300,000 to 450,000 people.
Forced sterilization was not secluded to the early 1900s, however, nor was it reserved for genocidal brutality. In the United States, eugenic and racist policies continued to clip the fallopian tubes of women of color around the nation. Perhaps what is most sinister, is that the issue has never died, and continues to weasel its way into modern politics and injustice.
In September of 2020, a whistleblower revealed that Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE), had been performing hysterectomies on unknowing women who were being held in immigration detention centers. According to the whistleblower report, a gynecologist providing ‘care’ to women in Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia, removed the uterus of every woman sent to his office. This amounted to a reported 20 hysterectomies carried out by Dr. Amin, sinisterly referred to as the ‘Uterus Collector’. Over 40women would later tell their stories of physician misconduct and abuse, and unnecessary procedures. Women were unaware of the reasons for their procedures, and were misguided as a result of poor English to Spanish translation.
Interestingly enough, voluntary sterilization is not a readily available option for many women who seek it out. Hysterectomies and tubal ligations are known for requiring a husband’s signature, or previous live-births. Through and through, the circumstances disarm all women of choice; one group may be forcefully sterilized by the state, while the other would be refused the option of elective sterilization. Meanwhile, the non-invasive, reversible sterilization option for men is a vasectomy, which has no history of requiring spousal consent, nor any age requirement once adulthood is reached.
I would like to acknowledge the objective fact that men of color were targeted victims of American eugenicist policy. Thus, involuntary sterilization is not quite a unique stain specific to women’s health. However, in current conversations surrounding bodily autonomy, circumstances reminiscent of eugenicist policy are relevant. Whether it be that incarcerated or detained women are involuntarily sterilized, or that those seeking elective sterilization are turned away, there exists a rich history as to why social determinations have been preset for the respective groups.
These are century old battles of self determination, the right for any individual to choose for themselves what may happen with their bodies. Intersectionality should once again be a critical aspect of bodily autonomy activism. Recognition of the historic attacks on other members of marginalized communities presents the unique opportunity to meld these experiences with the intent of developing a common understanding, a common goal.