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Forced Sterilization of Women of Color
The United States during the turn of the century could be characterized as ever changing. Many movements or fads swept over America, and had its' group of followers. One movement in particular however, seemed to penetrate so deeply in America that laws were adapted according to its' theories. The eugenics movement began as a way to better the population by ridding it of humans with genetic defects. The main focus for the movement was to limit the reproduction of mainly impoverished people. The general belief that people had were the poor had something inherently wrong with their genetic make up because of the fact that they were poor ( i know it's circular logic). Needless to say affluent people saw no qualms with the theories and due to their aloofness eugenic inspired laws crept their way into federal legislature. The forced sterilization of woman began as early as 1932, as is the case of Mary Brewer. The physicians deemed Ms. Brewer as "feebleminded" a common diagnosis and justification for sterilization (Schoen, 81-85). Some other examples of reasons for a woman to be sterilized are, low scores on IQ tests (which were gaining popularity) or receiving welfare (Schoen 90-91). The stipulation about welfare will be carried further into the 1970's where women of color are especially singled out for forced sterilization. The surge of forced sterilization in the early seventies occurred because of government deregulation of sterilization procedures and the passage of The Family Planning Services and Population Research Act of 1970.
Sterilization in the 1970's
The 1970's brought about a new wave of sterilization in America. The influx can de directly attributed to to the deregulation of sterilization procedures. The requirements for a woman to receive sterilization used to be, her age and number of children multiplied had to exceed 120, but after 1970 the stipulations no longer held. The culprit of the new deregulation was the passage of The Family Planning Services and Population Research Act of 1970. After the act passed government funding for sterilization skyrocketed. Elena Gutierrez in her book, Fertility Matters, makes note of the federal funding for family planning of the poor in 1965 ($5 million) to 1979 ($260 million). This government funding came in the form of Medicaid. Medicaid is government health insurance, which would now cover up to 90 percent of a sterilization procedure. Most of the funding for the procedure came from the Office of Economics Opportunity (OEO), which was set up to help combat the "war on poverty." Apparently the best solution for the war on poverty was to sterilize all of the poor people, which happened to be mainly women of color (Gutierrez, 37). Some tactics employed in order to trick women into becoming sterile are, rushing a signature onto a document that was authorizing a c-section AND a hysterectomy or threatening to take away welfare (Gutierrez, 39). A notable case of forced sterilization was the Relf sisters' unauthorized hysterectomy in Montgomery Alabama, in 1973. Fortunately the twins were able to gain some justice, but the act is already done, and the possibility of giving life to another human being had been lost forever. Unsurprisingly many physicians felt no remorse and even had what they considered legitimate explanations for their actions.
The Role of the Physician
Some of the physicians that conducted the sterilization procedures were interviewed by The Health Research Group. Some comments of the doctors were based in "strong beliefs about population control" and others were simply prejudice, and even for some it was a decision of economic viability, "all persons on welfare should have their tubes ties" (Gutierrez, 43). Comments like these were backed up with common claims of coercion and even physical abuse towards laboring mothers. Gutierrez sites an incident where the doctors would use the Mexican race as an excuse for receiving a hysterectomy because Mexican usually have big families, but are too poor to support them. Another of common instances that occurred is when doctors would condemn the woman in labor, by saying that none of the labor pain would have happened if
didn't have sex, obviously implying promiscuity (Gutierrrez, 44). It is obvious that the physicians felt no remorse for their actions, and unfortunately some of the men are till practicing medicine today. The doctors that were made to stand trial got off scot free because according to the judge, they were acting in "good faith" with no malicious intentions. Despite the shortcomings of the courts, many states in violation publicly apologized for their wrong doings, except for California, it was not until 2003 when a public apology was made by Governor Davis (Stern, 211-215). Stern makes a great point that Governor's Davis fell on deaf ears, because it took 30 years to do! She compares it to the apologies that North and South Carolina made in the seventies and said it paled in comparison to the reception it received. She also said that it was very sad because many of the people in California still feel shame and uselessness because of their misfortune and are unwilling to tell their stories.
The verdict that many of the judges came to on numerous forced sterilization trials was that the doctors and nurses were just doing their job. It also did not hurt to have a signed document giving consent, albeit a coercively signed document, but signed nonetheless. It is a shame when evil men cannot be tried equally under the law which is supposed to be blind. Shockingly in my research i came across a book, The Sterilization Movement and Global Fertility in the Twentieth Century, which actually tried to spin the forced sterilization of the the 70's basically as feminist propaganda. The title of the chapter which discusses the forced sterilization is "Tarred and Feathered." Now is it just me or is the title supposed to be hinting at the fact that the doctors which received no penalty for their actions are undergoing painstaking humiliation and reputation depletion (o pity them)? I read further into the chapter, and to my surprise it was essentially equal in its' views. However, i would assume that the reason the book is so equal is because the topic is the progress of the sterilization movement, and of course the magnitude of the 70's scandals cast doubt upon tubal ligations/hysterectomies in general. California was the leader in sterilization advancement in the 70's and it is the leader in genetic research today, coincidence? WIth California's discriminatory history, is it wise for it to be forging the path in genetics for the country? To be honest I do not feel comfortable having humans manipulate genes in the first place, but to have a state with a track record as California does it really worries me and leaves me with the unanswered question of whether or not gene manipulation will turn into the new way to discriminate?
Dowbiggin, Ian R. Where Have All the Babies Gone? The Sterilization Movement in the Cold War Era. New York: Oxford UP, USA, 2008.
Gutiérrez, Elena R. Fertile Matters The Politics of Mexican-Origin Women's Reproduction (Chicana Matters). New York: University of Texas P, 2008.
Schoen, Johanna. Choice and Coercion Birth Control, Sterilization, and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare (Gender and American Culture). New York: The University of North Carolina P, 2005.
Stern, Alexandra Minna. Eugenic Nation Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (American Crossroads). New York: University of California P, 2005.
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