Sterilization of Marginalized Groups

By Dr. Christina Sisti

Photo by on Unsplash

The majority of American states had laws by the 1930s that allowed for forced sterilization of socially undesirable categories of people, so-called feeble-minded, for example, and with Hitler culminating in genocide.” Michael Sandel

At the center of the Eugenics Movement were race and disability. Initially, poor white women and white immigrant groups such as Poles and Jews were targeted to justify a white-black hierarchy. Due to the sweeping belief of an inferior race, the Eugenics Movement spawned laws permitting the sterilization of those deemed genetically unfit.Thirty-two states passed eugenic laws-sterilization laws during the twentieth century, and between sixty to seventy thousand people were sterilized as a result.1
The most notorious affirmation of sterilization laws and eugenics is the ruling of Buck v. Bell made by the United States Supreme Court. The Court upheld a Virginia statute that legalized the sterilization of those determined to be genetically unfit. Carrie Buck was sterilized without her consent based on the belief she was feebleminded, a term that has been found to have no scientific determinant. 
The term feeblemindedness was defined by the erroneous acceptance of faulty intelligence tests and identifying factors such as moral degeneracy, an overactive sex drive, and other traits liberally ascribed to poor people (especially poor women) who were seen as having stepped out of line.2 Eugenists understood white genetic superiority as a crucial rationale for maintaining the segregation of blacks. 
Buck v. Bell was used to prevent children and women of color, including Puerto Rican women and children, Mexican women and children, Asian women and children, Native American women and children, and black women and children from having children.2
America’s brutal treatment of minorities and the disabled may be summed up by the institutionalizing of the disabled which led to sterilization, lobotomies and other scientific experiments and the infamous Tuskegee Experiment. Forced surgeries and sterilization occurred at the hands of doctors in the Indian Health Service (IHS). 
Though the IHS did deliver better health care, it operates historical assumptions that native people and people of color were morally, mentally, and socially defective…Some of the doctors did not believe American Indian and other minority women had the intelligence to use other methods of birth control effectively and that there were already too many minority individuals causing problems in the nation.3
Disabled and mentally ill women and children have also been disproportionately coerced into sterilization.The most notable case is Ashley the “Pillow Angel.” Ashley was born profoundly disabled. Doctors determined she would not grow developmentally past the infant stage but her body would. Ashley’s parents approved surgeries which stunted her growth so they could still pick her up and care for her since she would be confined to a bed for her life. Her parents also consented to the removal of breast buds and the removal of her uterus. Her parents sterilized her in a state where sterilization is outlawed.
Nazi Germany, studied California’s and other states Eugenic programs, was inspired to model their Eugenics program after the American Eugenics Movement model. The popularity and support of eugenic sterilization dwindled in America once America saw and heard about the horrors of the Concentration Camps. According to Andrea Estrada at University of California Santa Barbara, forced sterilization was particularly rampant in California (the program which inspired the Nazis);
Beginning in 1909 and continuing for 70 years, California led the country in the number of sterilization procedures performed on men and women, often without their full knowledge and consent. Approximately 20,000 sterilizations took place in state institutions, comprising one-third of the total number performed in the 32 states where such action was legal.4

While sterilization fell out of favor, it continued quietly in many states. In 2013, the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that at least a hundred forty-eight female prisoners in California were sterilized without their consent between 2006 and 2010.5 
To compound matters in 2015 investigative reporters found in Nashville, Tennessee, between 2010 and 2015, prosecutors had used sterilization as a bargaining chip in plea deals with female defendants.6  


 1Goldstein, Dana (2016, March 4).  Sterilization’s Cruel Inheritance.  New Republic.

 2DenHoed, Andrea (2016, April 27). The Forgotten Lessons of the American Eugenics Movement. The New Yorker

 3Blakemore, Erin (2016, August 25). The Little Known History of the Forced Sterilization of Native American Women.  American Indian Quarterly, 24(3), 400-419.

 4Ko, Lisa(Producer). (2016, January 29).  Unwanted Sterilization and Eugenics Programs in the United States. [Television broadcast]. New York, NY: PBS.

 5Johnson, Corey G. (2013, July 7).  Female Inmates Sterilized in California Prisons Without Approval (Report to The Center for Investigative Reporting). San Francisco, Ca. Reports Section.

 6Burke, Sheila (2015, March 29). Nashville Prosecutors Require Sterilization as Part of Plea Deals, The Boston Globe, p. B3.

This article is extracted from the Research paper titled 'America's Public Policy on Sexuality: The Repression of Girls in Vulnerable Populations'  in Chapter 4 of the Safety Report by SAFIGI Outreach Foundation 'Safety First for Girls'.

The Safety Report by SAFIGI is a two-fold Open research on 'Core Issues Affecting Safety of Girls in the Developing World.' The first part of the Safety Report is a Research Paper. The second part is a detailed Data Analysis. 

The Safety Report Research paper is titled: 'Core Issues Affecting Safety of Girls in the Developing World.' The paper starts with an abstract before focusing on subjects in the key regions of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. A total of 7 Research papers make up the safety Report (sans the introduction and conclusion), including:

  1. The psychological effect of mass sexual harassment on girls in Egypt (P.24) by Heba Elasiouty.
  2. Safety concerns in relation to social media: Growing up female in an increasingly digital world (P.45) by Karin Temperley.
  3. Psychosocial challenges faced by parents raising children with physical disabilities in Oshana region (P.68) by Misumbi Shikaputo.
  4. Gender-based violence and subsequent safety challenges experienced by Rohingya women (P.119) by Shucheesmita Simonti.
  5. LGBT policies and overall safety in Brazil (P.141) by Alinne Lopes Gomes.
  6. Silent voices‘: Violence against the female body as consequence of machismo culture (P.177)  by Steffica Warwick.
  7. America‘s Public Policy on Sexuality: The Repression of Girls in Vulnerable Populations (P.208) by Dr. Christina Sisti.

SAFIGI Outreach Foundation Ltd, a volunteer-based and youth led NGO registered in Zambia, implemented the Safety Report in order to understand the multifaceted concept of safety and how it applies to the female gender in diverse settings. And therefore, further prove safety is intrinsic, and that vices in society stem from an intimate level of the human being before its manifestation. This way, when we create safety solutions, whether it be in a developing nation, conflict zone, refugee camp, or patriarchal society, the problem is resolved from a deeply rooted cause. Such that, we treat the disease itself and not mere symptoms.

This study is as a result of collaborative effort pursued in the spirit of volunteerism via UN Online Volunteers.


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