Sterilization, including involuntary sterilization and mass sterilization campaigns, has been a primary and direct means of population control. Improper breeding—too much, too little, too early, too fast, and so forth—is claimed as the cause of many national ills—poverty, welfare, high school dropout rates, crime, divorce, breakdown of moral values, miscegenation, and the corruption of young women. A eugenics movement in the 1920s and 1930s resulted in sterilization campaigns at the state and federal levels that were supported by and in service to racism, classism, ideals of progress and modernization, and fantasies of globalization and empire. Sterilization of women in particular was seen as a method for combating fears of racial dilution, over-reproduction, and female sexuality. This entry describes the historical perspective, sterilization campaigns, and the differential effect of these campaigns.
Sterilization in the early decades of the 20th century was widely believed to be the surest route to national prosperity through the elimination of the “unfit” and the prevention of “race suicide” for healthy whites. More than a single procedure, sterilization can be tubal ligation or hysterectomy for women and castration for men to prevent pregnancy and childbearing of “degenerates,” the genetically inferior, criminals, and all others, especially the poor or immigrants, who posed a threat to ideals of the family and entrenched race and class boundaries. Equated with patriotism as a citizen’s duty, sterilization was seen as a cure for poverty, overpopulation, and promiscuity. Thousands of parents sent their teens and young adults to state homes for sterilization in the 1920s and 1930s, but a sexual double standard was practiced. Wendy Kline, in Building a Better Race, proposed that there were differential benefits for men and women to be sterilized. Traveling museum exhibits on physical fitness, the growth of eugenics societies, and the publication of eugenicist journals and college textbooks all indexed broad public support of sterilization at that time.
Mass sterilization campaigns were carried out at the state and federal levels often without informed consent and with the use of coercion. Beginning with Indiana in 1907, many states introduced or expanded bills permitting forced sterilization as cost-effective alternatives to social welfare programs in the face of economic recession. Writing the majority opinion for the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell in 1927, which upheld the constitutionality of Virginia’s 1924 forcible sterilization law, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., said, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” The record number of sterilizations in California, recorded in Sterilization for Human Betterment: A Summary of the Results of 6,000 Operations in California 1909–1929 by eugenicists Paul Popenoe and E. S. Gosney, was later hailed by Nazi Germany.
By the 1950s and 1960s, poor women and women of color were the targets of mass sterilization campaigns. Fannie Lou Hamer, a poor sharecropper from Mississippi, made her forced sterilization— often referred to as “Mississippi appendectomies” because they were considered routine and commonplace—part of her political platform for civil rights. Biographer Chana Kai Lee in For Freedom’s Sake, articulates the necessity of understanding the symbolic power and meaning of reproduction, especially in relation to race, class, and gender. As late as 1964, Mississippi proposed a sterilization bill that would have criminalized women on welfare for having additional children while receiving aid. Those convicted could submit to sterilization in exchange for jail time. Throughout the South, sterilization abuse was significant. The Southern Poverty Law Center exposed the enormity of this abuse when it filed a class action lawsuit in federal court seeking a ban on the use of federal funds for sterilization after 14-year old Minnie Lee Relf and her 12-year-old sister Mary Alice Relf were sterilized without their parents’ consent in Montgomery.
In addition, Native women and Puerto Rican women were targets of sterilization campaigns. Bureau of Indian Affairs hospitals were known for egregiously sterilizing women while they were still incapacitated and without their consent just after they had delivered their second or third baby. By the 1980s, one third of Puerto Rican women of childbearing age had been sterilized, according to Laura Briggs in Reproducing Empire. Casually referred to as “la operation” because it was so common, the sterilization of women in Puerto Rico was supported by both nationalists and mainland population policy advisors as a way to cure the island’s “culture of poverty” and presumed overpopulation problem. Furthermore, fetal protection bills in the 1960s and 1970s enforced sterilization as a condition for employment for women working in industrial or technology jobs known to cause birth defects.
Sterilization campaigns have affected white women differently than women of color. White girls’ and white women’s sterilization show how ideals of white womanhood are central to national concerns about racial purity and superiority. According to noted legal scholar Dorothy Roberts, “bad girls,” “wayward girls” or “problem girls”—as young white women who were considered sexually promiscuous or who failed to display sexual aversion to black men were called—were often sterilized. For example, Carrie Buck, the 21-year-old defendant in the infamous 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, may have been sterilized for being what might be considered “white trash” today. Thus, racism demands that white women do more than give birth to more whites, they must propagate the right type of whites (i.e., middle class and respectably sexual). In addition, Kline, in her discussion, “A New Deal for the Child: Ann Cooper Hewitt and Sterilization in the 1930s,” examines news coverage of the legal case over the sterilization of a would-be wealthy young woman who was deemed “moronic” to prevent her rightful inheritance. This case presents sterilization as a “family-centered solution” to the problem of female sexuality.
It is important to differentiate between the involuntary sterilization of millions of women in U.S. history in service to racism and other systemic forms of oppression and the voluntary sterilization women sought out as permanent forms of birth control for themselves. Yet, such differentiation is difficult to assess given the financial and social pressures often put on women to control their bodies and the size of their families. When sought as an individual solution to fertility, sterilization often reflects racial politics. White middle-class women struggled to find a doctor who would sterilize them, notes Roberts regarding how sterilization politics had shifted during the early reproductive rights movement just before the legalization of abortion in 1973.
Opposing coerced sterilization became a primary goal of the reproductive justice movement by the 1980s. Led by women of color in organizations such as the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (CARASA), the movement expanded the limited focus on abortion and birth control to a broader activist coalition. “We do not forget the forced sterilizations and forced starvations on the reservations,” writes award-winning novelist Alice Walker, who delivered her haunting polemic poem “What Can the White Man Say to the Black Woman?” about the reproductive control of women throughout U.S. history at the May 22, 1989, March for Women’s Equality and Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C. Sterilization scholarship has surged recently with a number of new and important critical books. As of 2007, supported by federal funding through Medicaid alongside increasing restrictions on abortion access, sterilization remained the most common form of birth control.
American Birth Control League; Castration; Eugenics; Hysterectomy; Women’s Health Movements
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