#10. Activists Call Out Legacy of Racism and Sexism in Forced Sterilization

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

During the 20th century, at least 60,000 Americans in some 32 states were sterilized without their consent. The majority of individuals subjected to forced sterilization at the hands of the government have been people of color, inmates of jails, prisons, or institutions for people with mental illness or disabilities, and members of other marginalized and disempowered groups. As reports from The Conversation and YES! Magazine have documented, forced sterilization continues in the United States today. Organizations such as Project South, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, and the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab are actively working to document the extent of this underreported problem—and to bring an end to it.

A February 8, 2021 article by Ray Levy Uyeda in YES! Magazine highlighted the experience of Kelli Dillon, who was an inmate in a California prison in 2001 when she underwent a procedure to remove a potentially cancerous growth. During that procedure, Dillon’s surgeon also performed a hysterectomy she did not authorize. Dillon’s experience is far from unique. In 2001 alone, 148 women in California prisons underwent tubal ligation or total hysterectomies without their knowledge, and between 1997 and 2010 some 1,400 California women prisoners underwent unwanted sterilizations.

Levy Uyeda’s YES! Magazine article also reported on more recent allegations of forced sterilizations sanctioned by US officials, including charges that between October and December of 2019 an immigration detention center in Georgia “had forcibly sterilized at least five women in the custody” of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). [On the Georgia cases, YES! Magazine cited original reporting by José Olivares and John Washington, “‘He Just Empties You All Out’: Whistleblower Reports High Number of Hysterectomies at ICE Detention Facility,” The Intercept, September 15, 2020.]

Forced sterilization campaigns “merge perceptions of disability with racism, xenophobia and sexism—resulting in the disproportionate sterilization of minority groups,” Alexandra Minna Stern reported for The Conversation. Some sources report anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 women have been victims of these campaigns in the United States alone.

The United States has a long and sordid history of forced sterilization. This barbaric practice was deemed constitutional in a 1927 Supreme Court decision, Buck v. Bell, which paved the way for a century of nonconsensual sterilization. This case involved a young woman, Carrie Buck, who had been classified by a Virginia state institution as “feeble-minded” and “promiscuous” and deemed therefore unfit to raise a child. As a result, she was sterilized without her knowledge or consent during a separate procedure. Although Buck’s family may have suffered from various mental illnesses and poverty, Buck herself did not suffer from mental illness—she was merely living in poverty. But, due to her family’s history and economic status, the Supreme Court ruled that sterilization without her consent was necessary and justified. With Buck v. Bell as precedent, doctors were permitted to sterilize countless Black Americans during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras, and the practice grew so common in the South it came to be known as a “Mississippi Appendectomy.” Although most states now have laws against forced sterilization, the 1927 Supreme Court decision has never been overturned. 

As University of Michigan professor Alexandra Minna Stern wrote in an August 26, 2020 commentary for The Conversation, “All forced sterilization campaigns, regardless of their time or place, have one thing in common. They involve dehumanizing a particular subset of the population deemed less worthy of reproduction and family formation.” Stern directs the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab, an interdisciplinary research group that “explore[s] patterns and experiences of eugenics and sterilization in the 20th century using mixed methods from the social sciences, humanities, and public health.” Other organizations, including Project South and California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, are beginning to petition for laws that would ban forced sterilization in prisons, according to Ray Levy Uyeda’s YES! Magazine report.

The history of eugenics has been thoroughly researched and criticized by scholars and human rights activists, but coverage by the corporate media of the US practice of forced sterilization throughout the 20th century and into the 21st has tended to be limited and narrowly focused. After allegations surfaced that ICE had sterilized detainees without their consent, there was some corporate news coverage. For example, the Washington Post published a September 2020 article about these allegations in the context of the history of forced sterilization in the United States but omitted any mention of the activists resisting the practice. September 2020 articles from CNN and the Boston Globe also took the same limited approach. In February 2021 the Los Angeles Times carried a damning op-ed by Alexandra Minna Stern about the newspaper’s role in promoting eugenics and sterilizations in the 1930s and 1940s. However, the specific focus of Stern’s Los Angeles Times editorial could suggest to some readers that sterilization is an issue confined to the past, and not a current, pressing concern.

Project South, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, and the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab all work to document and raise awareness of forced sterilizations, seek compensation for victims, and fight to ensure that these procedures are never forced upon an individual without their knowledge and consent again. But corporate news coverage of the work of these organizations has been virtually nonexistent. Some establishment press articles on the topic of forced sterilization include comments from members of these organizations to provide context on the issue, but few spotlight the groups’ tireless organizing and record of accomplishments. Exceptions to this include articles from both Marie Claire magazine and Refinery29, a website targeted at younger women. However, for the past year the vast majority of articles recognizing the work of these groups have originated from independent news sources.

It is only as of July 2021, as this book goes to print, that the trend finally seems to be changing, with the Associated Press and other establishment news outlets reporting that California is preparing to approve reparations of up to $25,000 per person to women who had been sterilized without consent in public hospitals and other state institutions because the government had deemed them unfit to have children.88 The Associated Press and Washington Post articles on the topic briefly mention the work of the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab, and the Post quotes Alexandra Minna Stern; the New York Times and Guardian pieces quote Alexandra Minna Stern without mentioning her connection to the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab; and the Associated Press, Washington Post, Reuters, ABC7 (Los Angeles), and the Guardian quote a representative of California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, with the Los Angeles Times featuring the organization’s programs director on a podcast.

Alexandra Minna Stern, “Forced Sterilization Policies in the US Targeted Minorities and Those with Disabilities—and Lasted into the 21st Century,” The Conversation, August 26, 2020.

Ray Levy Uyeda, “How Organizers are Fighting an American Legacy of Forced Sterilization,” YES! Magazine, February 8, 2021.

Student Researcher: Morgan Nichols (Saint Michael’s College)

Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (Saint Michael’s College)

Illustration by Anson Stevens-Bollen.