Genetic Crossroads

The intersection of biotechnology, reproduction and society

Involuntary Sterilization Then and Now

Sterilization laws may be in the past, but the practice and ideology lives on

Victims of forced and coerced sterilizations carried out under North Carolina’s decades-spanning Eugenics Board program finally received some good news earlier this summer: The state legislature has agreed to spend $10 million to compensate them for the abuse they suffered. Offering compensation to those who are still alive – 177 men and women have come forward and been verified so far – is an important recognition of the moral and practical failure of this eugenic practice.

North Carolina sterilized some 7,600 people between 1929 and 1974 for a range of reasons, including findings by authorities that they were lazy, promiscuous, or poor. State records have revealed the extent of the discriminatory nature of the program: “North Carolina's sterilization program zeroed in on welfare recipients. Over the last 15 years of its operation, 99 percent of the victims were women; more than 60 percent were black.”

The decision to compensate sterilization victims has been a long time coming. The state established the North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation in 2010, but the agency was temporarily forced to close its doors last summer when the Senate brought the compensation effort to a halt. Its ultimate success is in large part a testament to the passion of advocates such as Elaine Riddick, who was sterilized at the age of 14 after giving birth to a child that resulted from rape. She had no idea of what had been done to her until years later when she tried unsuccessfully to start a family with her husband.

North Carolina will be the first US state to offer compensation to victims of sterilization, but could inspire some of the other thirty states that had similar eugenics laws to follow suit. Coming to terms with this history is hugely important. It’s easy in hindsight to recognize what it was: in the words of medical reporter Elizabeth Cohen, a “horrific chapter in American history.” At the time, however, as she points out, “the programs were supported by some of the nation's most respected doctors, lawyers, and social workers.”

Most Americans are unaware of the country’s eugenic legacy. That is also true in California, where some 20,000 people, including a disproportionate number of Latinos, were sterilized under state auspices. As a group of California high school students pointed out in an online petition to incorporate this history into the curricula,

"Learning about eugenics in California is not simply about being more informed, or redressing past wrongs, but about considering difficult questions about justice, equality, and human rights. We have seen how these questions are now more important than ever, as we move into an uncertain age of genetic science."

Unfortunately, involuntary sterilizations, as well as the ideology that informs them, are not behind us. They still occur today, often arranged by people who seem to genuinely believe they are helping society.

Guernica magazine recently reported that Kenyan doctors have been sterilizing HIV positive women, sometimes without their knowledge. Israel reportedly targeted Ethiopian Jews for long-term contraception. Sweden only just changed a 30-year-old law that required transgender people to undergo sterilization before they could legally be recognized as another gender.

But involuntary sterilizations also occur much closer to home.

Just last month, an exposé by Corey G. Johnson of the Center for Investigative Reporting reported that 148 women in two California prisons were illegally sterilized between 2006 and 2010. Justice Now, a prisoner rights group that first uncovered evidence of this abuse, started a petition with Californians United for a Responsible Budget to demand that it end.

Thankfully, these efforts are having an impact. California legislators have just unanimously approved an audit of the doctors who carried out sterilizations of nearly 150 women without required authorizations.

Questionable sterilization efforts also continue today outside of prisons. A few years ago, a Louisiana state representative proposed paying poor people to get sterilized. A private organization, Project Prevention, pays crack addicts $300 to get sterilized. Wesley Strong recently wrote about its program:

"Barbara Harris and Project Prevention are products of a post-1980s era where racism, sexism, and classism are far more nuanced, where eugenics programs can hide behind liberal notions of charity."

Looking from sterilizations of the past to those of today, it’s not hard to see all of the same racist, sexist and classist influences at play. However, as Nathaniel Comfort recently discussed in Scientific American, there are those who want to deny that structural discrimination still plays a role in modern eugenics. This “growing constituency of Drs. Jekyll within the biomedical community” argues that eugenic practices guided by individual choice are a clean break from the eugenics of the past. But as Comfort points out, “Individual eugenics, in other words, dissolves into a species of collective eugenics. Focusing on individual health does not absolve us of the evolutionary question, Whither humankind?”

North Carolina’s compensation decision is a huge victory, and provides a valuable lens through which to see how easily eugenic practices can be viewed as valuable, progressive, social measures. Instead of waiting for the next generation to refer to our own “horrific chapter in American history,” let’s hope it signals an end to tolerance of all involuntary sterilization.

 

Jessica Cussins is a researcher at the Center for Genetics and Society.

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