The Sound of Silence: Where Is the Anti-Choice Outcry Over North Carolina’s Forced Sterilization of Women of Color?

A task force in North Carolina recently ruled that survivors of that state’s eugenics program should be paid $50,000 each in financial compensation. Eugenics is often defined as the science of “improving” a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of “desirable” heritable characteristics. The practice of eugenics was not limited to Nazi Germany nor is it a well kept secret that’s been waiting to be discovered by organizations opposed to reproductive justice.

In America, state governments set up eugenics boards that determined the reproductive future of thousands. I grew up listening to my maternal Grandmother, a Mississippi native, warn against trusting doctors and passing along lessons she learned from other poor women of color who went into a hospital to give birth only to later find out that they were given a Mississippi Appendectomy without their consent. The horrific legacy of these state eugenics boards is one of the reasons why I embrace the reproductive justice framework advocating for the right to have children, not have children, and to parent children in safe and healthy environments.

From the early 1900s up until the 1970’s, over 30 states had formal eugenics programs. These programs enforced compulsory sterilization of individuals deemed to be “unfit” and “promiscuous.” States sterilized people that were disabled, poor, people of color, and immigrants. North Carolina had a particularly aggressive program that was alone in allowing social workers to select people for sterilization based on IQ tests. To date, only seven states have formally apologized for eugenics programs and no state has paid money to survivors. Although a task force appointed by the governor in North Carolina ruled in favor of payment to survivors, their recommendations are now in the hands of state legislators.

Too often eugenics is looked on as a shameful part of German history and many Americans are unaware of the history of eugenics in this country. I’m reminded of the warning that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. No, I’m not about to repeat black genocide claims that modern health care centers use contraception as a weapon or the (easily debunked if folks just used Google Maps) conspiracy theory about abortion clinics being located in predominately black neighborhoods. I’m referring to the history of government taking control over people’s reproductive future and how that component of the history of eugenics and is very present today. While those opposed to reproductive justice appropriate the language of Civil Rights to perpetuate bizarre anti-knowledge theories about dangerous black women and how we are the greatest threat to the newly identified species of “black child,” states that actually ran eugenics programs and sterilized thousands of people get little to no attention and all too often as not held accountable for those actions.

As for the doomed to repeat it part, many of those same states continue to seek dominion over women through everything from state mandated vaginal penetration of women seeking abortion services to a record number of restrictions hindering access to reproductive health care. States are gaining more control over people’s reproductive health care decisions and some organizations have even tried to get states to seize total control.

On the most basic level, the history of state eugenics boards is about the survivors. Their stories tell the tale of the damage wrought when government policy is used as a weapon to control the masses. Clearly that’s not a tale anti-choice folks opposed to reproductive justice are interested in making a flashy YouTube video about, because the sound of their silence on the news out of North Carolina has been deafening. With the exception of a few articles that chose to launch into another rant about Planned Parenthood rather than demand support for North Carolina’s survivors and a call for justice for victims of the other 30+ state eugenics programs, those who are usually eager to toss the accusation of eugenics out appear to be uninspired by cases of actual eugenics in America.

As reproductive justice activists we must organize in support of survivors of state eugenics programs. We must demand that states act as North Carolina has to move toward justice. But we must also continue to resist and organize against the current anti-choice legislative power grab seeking control once more over our bodies while claiming they do so for the benefit of society. The recommendations from North Carolina’s eugenics task force serve to remind us that our cause is rooted firmly in the history oppression and that justice remains the right to have children, not have children, and to parent children in safe and healthy environments.

ABOVE: Exhibit depicting compulsory sterilization legislation in the United States in 1921. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Reprinted with permission from RH Reality Check.

Comments

  1. Well it sucks that people whom don’t want to be sterilized are being coerced, but it equally sucks that I WANT to get sterilized and I have to pay a small fortune, no one is lining up to pay me.

    • Laren, those are two separate things. You wanting to get sterilized means you have the will to do so. A person getting sterilized without knowing it is a huge violation and a crime. The Hypocratic oath for physicians I believe is “do no harm” and the ones that do harm belong in jail but a lot of them seem to get away with it. I think what you said was pretty insensitive to what these people went through. These doctors had no right. If we are pro-choice then we are pro-choice all around. I wouldn’t want to find out that my government made a choice for me concerning my personal life without me knowing-that’s almost like the government raping you! GOVERNMENTS SHOULD NOT TRY TO CONTROL WOMEN’S BODIES! It’s appalling and disgusting.

      • I think Lauren’s comment is relevant. The notion that some women should be mothers, while others should not is still a judgement made frequently by medical professionals and society at large. This is reflected in the difficulty some women face in trying to be sterilized. Many doctors won’t do it for women who are young and have not already had children. The point is, women should have control over their own fertility no matter what their ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, marital status or any other variable. Outside judgement on who is fit to mother still plays a role in women’s autonomy.

      • Yup. I don’t see what the two things have to do with each other.

    • Yeah, Lauren, your situation is hardly comparable with the way you’re framing this story. They weren’t “paying” these women to get sterilized–they’re reimbursing them/their descendants because they were forcibly sterilized. You have agency, and they did not.

  2. I really had no idea that this was happening, probably still happening in other parts of the world. I remember a few stories regard mentally handicapped women being sterilized and I thought that was despicable. Sometimes people and their beliefs or thoughts shocked the hell out of me. So sad.

  3. Jane Peters says:

    Forced sterilizations, forcing drugs onto and into people including the mentally ill and or retarded, and forced experiments on people should all be illegal! This is just plain wicked! The United Nations should make this illegal!

  4. I’m not sure why the “anti-choice” movement should be outraged (or indeed wasting their time) on something that happened a half a century ago.

    You might as well as why the “pro-choice” group isn’t apologizing, as their connection (through Margaret Sanger) is a much closer connection.

    • Iliana Echo says:

      Many anti-choicers don’t like birth control or other things that prevent pregnancy like condoms or IUDs, but this removal of a woman’s ability to have children WITHOUT HER CONSENT is ignored. Also the pro-choice community is already outraged.

  5. I’m currently working at the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center. I recently finished compiling a three month project that I’d written about eugenics and crypto eugenics (population control) pertaining to women of color with particular concentrations on African American women, Native American women, and Puerto Rican women. I’m beyond ecstatic that such information is being put out in main stream media.

  6. You have got to be kidding right????????????????? Pro-lifers have supported those victims for years. In Fact it was the film- Maafa21 which shows a clear connection to the pro-abortion group Planned Parenthood and Eugenics that interviewed Sterilization victim Elaine Riddick in the first place! Get a grip…look up those behind Human Betterment – Clarence Gamble one who funded the Planned Parenthood founder so they could get away with all those racist sterilizations ! Watch Maafa21 http://www.maafa21.com and clean u the pro-choice side and eugenics first !

  7. Who do you think FIRST brought up the whole issue? Elaine Riddick, forcibly sterilized in North Carolina, was featured in Maafa21…produced by prolife advocates. She’s one of those “anti-choicers” you criticize. The black prolife movement has been exposing this issue, all rooted in eugenics, for decades. Those TooManyAborted.com billboards hit on this. There are numerous articles from prolifers about the issue, such as http://www.lifenews.com/2011/11/08/state-of-same-eugenics-still-drives-the-abortion-industry/ and Dr. Alveda King’s http://www.priestsforlife.org/africanamerican/blog/index.php/eugenics-and-planned-parenthood.

    The idea of forced sterilizations? Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood, in conjunction with the American Eugenics Society, are responsible for pushing eugenics-based laws in state after state. In fact, many eugenics boards were comprised of Planned Parenthood personnel, board members, and associations. Put the blame where it is due.

    There’s not been ANY silence from black prolifers, but deafening cries falling silent upon pro-abortion ears.

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