On Tuesday, September 14, 2020, a nurse at Irwin County Detention Center in South Georgia alleged that women at the privately-owned facility are receiving unwanted hysterectomies. Blatantly stated, this means that women are being stripped of their personal right and choice to reproduce by the undesired removal of their uterus and possibly their ovaries, cervix, and fallopian tubes. This brave nurse’s complaint has evoked over 170 members of Congress to push for an inquiry. Within days, a 30-year-old Cameroonian mother came forward about her involuntary sterilization experience at the same detention center in Georgia.
This article is a sad reminder that the U.S has a deep history of forced sterilization on women, specifically disabled women and women of color.
The United States’ long history of racism and xenophobia spawned an extensive and lingering history of this violation of bodily autonomy. These racist notions fueled from white supremacy ignited The American Eugenics Movement in the early twentieth century. Eugenics was used to control the reproduction of “undesired traits” among black men, women of color, poor women, the mentally disabled and ill, and those convicted of crimes. These federally funded, medically racist and discriminatory programs took place in 32 states throughout the twentieth century (Kaelber, 2012).
Let’s look back to 1927 when the Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 to uphold states’ right to use forced sterilization in public institutions on those considered “unfit” to reproduce. This case, known as Buck v Bell, focuses on a young woman who was deemed “feeble-minded” (Alonso). This case began to set the tone for legal forced sterilization in the United States in the 20th century. However, other ways in which the government deceived people into sterilization was through omission of information and coercion.
Aside from those who were decided “mentally disable or mentally unfit,” this practice continued
well into the 1970s with the sterilization of women of color. An estimated 25% of Indigenous women who were of childbearing years were sterilized nonconsensually and without a full understanding of the procedure over the six-year period that preceded the passage of the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act of 1970 (Theobald, 2020). In Puerto Rico, forced sterilization by the U.S government was used as population control, and approximately one-third of the female population in Puerto Rico was sterilized (Andrews, 2017). Throughout history, enslaved Black women have continuously had their reproductive freedom violated as well; in the twentieth century, African American women were among the most targeted groups for sterilization, especially in North Carolina (Alonso). However, in North Carolina, the eugenics program was eliminated in 1977, but corresponding legislation remained until 2003 (Nittle, 2020). While the use of forced sterilization has decelerated, it has certainly not stopped. Between 2006 and 2010, The Center for Investigative Reporting found that at least 148 female California inmates received tubal ligations without their consent (Hunter, 2017).
Keep in mind that these are just a few documented and researched situations of many (documented and undocumented) in which women of color’s bodily autonomy were violated. We should all be enraged by hearing the news of what’s going on in Georgia. However, to be surprised is to ignore history. It is so heartbreaking and disappointing to hear we are still fighting this fight today. I hope this article encourages you to stay informed on current and past human rights violations in and outside of the United States, whether you learn about them in the classroom or not. I definitely am not an encyclopedia and do not know everything, so I believe it is my responsibility to listen and educate myself when others speak up about their experience. I hope and encourage you all reading to feel the same.