Forced Sterilization: A Thing of the Past?

Ana Koerner | staff writer

While grieving the loss of her son and husband in the same year, my great-aunt was forcibly sterilized by the Nazis under the pretense that she was mentally ill – a shame to the Aryan race.

It’s easy to assume such horrific things only happen under brutal dictatorships in faraway lands. Yet the desire for purity and whiteness is not antiquated nor is it exclusive to Nazi Germany; the United States Government has unjustly sterilized primarily low-income women of color for nearly a century.

The practice of coercive sterilization has a long and devastating history in the U.S. Indiana passed the country’s first sterilization law which legalized the practice in 1907, and it’s no coincidence that the Eugenics Education Society was founded that same year. This so-called scientific approach sought to resolve many social problems of the time, including criminality, mental illness, and racial impurity. Yet by the 1920s, forced sterilization gained popularity as a mechanism of controlling women’s sexualities; sexually promiscuous women were deemed immoral, impure, and incapable of making decisions for themselves or the children they would never bear.

Throughout the rest of the 20th century, 32 North American states would pass sterilization laws of their own. Massive waves of immigration following both World Wars only reinforced the nation’s desire to preserve whiteness and therefore halt the growth of minority populations. By the 1970s, this mission was executed more subtly through the War on Poverty, which financed sterilization procedures via family planning initiatives.

However, without any standardized laws on consent, hundreds of thousands of primarily low-income Black, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Native American women were threatened or tricked into sterilization due to misinformation and sometimes illiteracy. In some cases, the United States government threatened to withdraw welfare benefits from women facing extreme poverty unless they agreed to the procedure. By contrast, white, middle-class women of the 1970s enjoyed greater control over their sexual and reproductive rights. Sociologist Thomas Shapiro warned that “the dividing line between family planning and eugenics is murky.”

Native American women were particularly vulnerable to coerced or non-consensual sterilization due to their dependence on the United States government for health care. Between 1973 and 1976, Indian Human Services devastatingly sterilized 3,406 Native American women. This number is comparable to 452,000 non-Native women, an immense tragedy given their already undersized population.

The term “eugenics” sounds archaic, yet the latest known incident of coerced sterilization happened less than a decade ago; between 2005 and 2013, at least 149 female prisoners of two California state prisons were sterilized. Women of color are disproportionately incarcerated in comparison to white women and are therefore more widely subjected to prison health care systems. Thus, it makes sense that 63 percent of women who underwent the procedure were Black, Latino, or classified as “other.” The issue of consent in these cases is still up for debate – medical professionals at each prison claim to have only offered tubal ligations to inmates with three prior Cesarean sections for whom another pregnancy could be life-threatening.

Photo by Southern Studies Institute.

However, the inmates told a much different story. Women who had not undergone three C-sections reported being constantly pressured into receiving the procedure, and in some cases their obstetrician gynecologists (OBGYN) asked for consent while patients were in the midst of childbirth, sedated and in excruciating pain.

James Heinrich, an OBGYN of Valley State Prison in California, argued that the expenses of the procedures amounted to less than the welfare that would be necessary to support the children of inmates. He stated that he was providing women with the same contraceptive options as they would have been receiving out of jail.

The thing is, non-imprisoned women are not regularly subject to the corruption of massive institutions. Non-imprisoned women are not regularly offered irreversible contraceptive procedures while in labor. Providing imprisoned women with proper health care would mean educating them on the various types of contraception that exist today and giving them the option to choose what, if any, type of birth control they are comfortable with. But forever removing a woman’s right to motherhood without her consent is simply dehumanizing.

The prominence of forced sterilization in United States history presents more than just a reproductive justice issue. Female prisons are the second-largest providers of reproductive health services in the United States, yet female prisoners are never included in the discussion about reproductive health. While the issue of abortion is essential and relevant to women across America, it is equally important to combat problems faced specifically by low-income women of color. By holding such institutions accountable for perpetuating racist, antiquated values, we can begin to dismantle the hierarchy of feminist issues that has historically prioritized the needs of middle-class white women over all others.


Ana is a junior Urban Studies and Spanish double major. She will be studying abroad in Chile in February.


Check out more from December 2015 issue here.