During the 20th century, approximately 60,000 people in 32 states were sterilized without their consent. As reports from The Conversation and YES! Magazine document, forced sterilization continues in the US today. For example, 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. Dillon’s experience is far from unique. In 2001 alone, 148 women in California prisons underwent tubal litigation or total hysterectomies without their knowledge, and between 1997 and 2010 some 1,400 California women prisoners underwent unwanted sterilizations.
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 affected, and now they are fighting back. Groups such as Project South, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, and the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab are three organizations actively working to document the extent of this underreported problem—and to bring an end to it.
A 1927 Supreme Court decision, Buck vs. Bell, paved the way for nonconsensual sterilization over the last century. In that case, the Court deemed Carrie Buck to be “feeble minded and promiscuous” and therefore unfit to raise a child. Although Buck’s family 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 sterilization without her consent as necessary and justified. Using Buck vs. Bell, dcotors sterilized countless Black Americans during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras, a practice so common in the South it was called a “Mississippi Appendectomy.” Although most states now have laws against forced sterilization, the 1927 Supreme Court decision has not been overturned.
As Alexandra Minna Stern wrote, “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.” Organized groups including Project South and California Latinos for Reproductive Rights are now 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 is highly researched and criticized, but the topic has received little coverage by the establishment press. In September 2020, the Washington Post published an article that reported on accusations of forced sterilizations of detained immigrants by US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the context of a history of forced sterilization in the US, but the Post’s coverage omitted mention of current activism resisting the practice.
Minna Stern Alexandra, “Forced Sterilization Policies in the US Targeted Minorities and Those with Disabilities – and Lasted into the 21st Century,” The Conversation, August 26, 2020, https://theconversation.com/forced-sterilization-policies-in-the-us-targeted-minorities-and-those-with-disabilities-and-lasted-into-the-21st-century-143144.
Ray Levy Uyeda, “How Organizers Are Fighting an American Legacy of Forced Sterilization,” YES! Magazine, February 8, 2021, https://www.yesmagazine.org/social-justice/2021/02/08/united-states-forced-sterilization-women/.
Student Researcher: Morgan Nichols (Saint Michael’s College)
Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (Saint Michael’s College)