Forced sterilizations of women

Abuse of migrants and prisoners recalls ugly eugenics era

Participants in a “Fittest Family” contest in Topeka, Kansas, 1920s. PHOTO: American Philosophical Society
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In September 2020, Dawn Wooten, a Black former nurse at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Detention Center in Irwin County, Georgia, blew the whistle on forced sterilizations happening there. An investigation by a team of medical experts uncovered an alarming pattern of unwarranted gynecological surgeries, most without the women’s consent. In late October, lawyers reported that the number of complaints had risen to 57. ICE has deported or tried to deport women to block their protests.

ICE is not the only culprit in these abuses. Nearly 150 forced sterilizations were carried out on female inmates in California prisons between 2006 and 2010, driven in part by anti-Asian and anti-Mexican bigotry. Where else are they still going on?

As a militant with Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party since the early ’70s, I have joined with other women of color and multiracial socialist feminists to fight against forced sterilization and for full reproductive justice. Once again, we need to battle to end these abhorrent practices for good!

The atrocities against immigrant and imprisoned women are reminiscent of 20th Century eugenic programs. This pseudoscience argued for improving the human species by selectively breeding for “desirable” traits, and was driven by racism and white supremacy as well as bigotry against poor and disabled people. Its advocates supported the fallacious notion that superior traits came from upper-class, Christian, European stock.

The long shadow of racist, sexist eugenics. The fusion of eugenics and racism became the justification for forced sterilizations. In 1909, California was the first state to pass laws allowing sterilization of inmates and mental hospital patients without consent. In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could sterilize those they deemed “unfit.” Vile eugenics swept through the country and some 32 states passed these laws. By the mid-20th Century, more than 60,000 women and men had been sterilized in state homes and hospitals.

By 1964, California had forcibly sterilized about 20,000 people in state institutions. The program disproportionately targeted the Latinx community, women, poor people and those with disabilities and impairments — even women who had children out of wedlock.

German Nazis adopted U.S. eugenic ideas to justify their extermination of millions of Jews, ethnic Roma, LGBTQ+ people, disabled people, leftists and labor activists.

Horrific U.S. sterilization practices went far beyond the official eugenics laws. They were also carried out against some Japanese American women in U.S. concentration camps during WWII. Between the 1930s and the 1970s in the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico, about one-third of the female population was sterilized. During the same period, an estimated 25% to 42% of Native American women, some as young as 15, were sterilized.

Black women — deemed “too uppity, too militant, and too political” — have always been targets of population “control.” Between 1929 and 1974 in North Carolina alone, 7,600 people were sterilized — most of them Black women. Mississippi civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer was given a hysterectomy without her consent in 1961 and spoke out against forced sterilization.

As we are seeing, many more cases have gone uncounted, and continue to this day.

Turn rebellion into revolution. Today we see a nationwide outcry over the forced sterilizations of our immigrant sisters held in detention concentration camps. I attended and spoke at two demonstrations in Los Angeles organized by Indigenous women leaders. Others were held in cities including Minneapolis and Omaha, Nebraska. Doctors for Camp Closure is sponsoring a petition by medical professionals to stop forced sterilizations, close the Irwin facility, and end the detention system.

Women, with women of color in the lead, have a history of fighting for our rights on many fronts — in the home, on the job and in the streets. In 1969, Black women from the antipoverty program, along with Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women members, led the fight to legalize abortion in Washington state — and won it three years before Roe v. Wade did so nationally.

Women of color must fight on all fronts because we are the ones most exploited by all the ills of capitalism. We are experienced, skilled and determined to make change. Who best to lead in the interconnected struggles for abortion rights and against forced sterilization?

The parties of capitalism are not our leaders. A Democratic majority Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, banning use of federal Medicaid funds for abortions. Democrats have proved they are incapable of defending women’s rights. Republicans have aligned with white supremacists and right-to-lifers. With the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, the very survival of abortion rights in the U.S. is threatened.

The never-ending game of fighting for reforms and losing them with a new capitalist president or judge is an old one. What we need is to change the whole damn system. It is those most oppressed and exploited by capitalism who are rising up and rebelling. It is women of color who will lead in transforming this profit-driven system into a communal, democratic, and human centered one where we and all workers and the oppressed are valued and respected.

On the road to this egalitarian society, it is imperative that as feminist, civil rights and immigrant rights activists, we join forces to defend women’s rights to abortion and no forced sterilization. We have fought too hard and too long to give up now. United, we can do this!

    • Abolish ICE. Close the camps. Release all detainees.
    • STOP all forced sterilizations. Prosecute the doctors and for-profit prison corporations responsible.
    • Provide free abortion on demand, full contraceptive services, free childcare and universal healthcare. Repeal the Hyde Amendment.

    Yolanda Alaniz is the Coordinator of the LA Comrades of Color Caucus. Contact her at Yoli.alaniz@yahoo.com.

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