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Acknowledging the History of Forced Sterilizations in the U.S.

As many women in the United States currently face challenges due to the recent Texas abortion ban, it is important to keep in mind that this is not the only way the government has used legislation to try and control women’s reproductive rights. The U.S. has a long history of forced sterilizations—some of which are still happening today. Many of these instances have been in support of the eugenics movement, which seeks to “improve” the human race by preventing certain people from reproducing. It is easy to see ways in which other parts of the world have participated in this movement, but basic U.S. history. often fails to account for its own misdoings.

After many years of legislatures in various U.S. states attempting to pass laws allowing forced sterilizations, Indiana successfully passed a bill in 1907 that allowed those with intellectual disabilities to be involuntarily sterilized by the government. This was the first law of its kind to be passed in the entire world, and many other states followed suit. The United States Supreme Court did not hear its first forced sterilization case until Buck v Bell in 1927, when 18-year-old Carrie Buck faced sterilization for being “feebleminded”. Unfortunately, the court did not find this unconstitutional and ruled in favor of allowing the involuntary procedure to take place. During the trial, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. stated, “It is better for all the world, if…society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”

In addition to contributing to explicit ableism, forced sterilizations have also negatively affected people of color. During the 1970’s, the Nixon administration expanded Medicaid funding that covered sterilizations. Although these were supposedly voluntary, many low-income women, especially those of color, who underwent these procedures were either uninformed or misinformed about what they were agreeing to. Black, Puerto Rican, and Native American women in particular continued to face involuntary sterilization throughout the 20th century.

Although the last legal forced sterilization in the U.S. took place in 1981, many have still occurred. Just last year in 2020, a formal complaint was issued stating that immigrants at an ICE detention center in Georgia were receiving “unnecessary hysterectomies”. Additionally, California only recently passed a law that banned non-consensual sterilization for its prisoners in 2014 after a documentary claimed that their prisons carried out involuntary sterilizations on female inmates. These occurrences may seem less blatant than those in earlier years, but they are a reminder that these issues still plague our country even today.

Whether fighting to be allowed to have children or fighting to be allowed not to have children, women are still in a battle for the right to choose. Unfortunately, these are not new issues; women have struggled for centuries to be awarded their rights as humans and as citizens. Forced sterilizations have not only contributed to the oppression of women, but they also promote sexism and ableism influenced by eugenics-based ideals. Moving forward, our country must acknowledge its historical involvement in forced sterilizations and the eugenics movement in order to make sure we are doing everything we can to currently protect those at risk.

Rachel Lester

Oglethorpe '22

Rachel Lester is a Psychology major and Music minor at Oglethorpe. She loves animals (bugs included!), hanging out with her friends, and trying new foods.
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