Content Warning: This article contains mentions of eugenics.
It’s been nearly four months since the United States Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion, triggering restrictions in numerous states and a national debate on reproductive rights. The regulation of women’s bodies has a long history in the U.S., not only regarding abortion, wherein women exercise the autonomy to make decisions, but also the forced sterilization of women — in which the state made decisions on their behalf.
More than 60,000 people were sterilized in the U.S. in the 20th century on the basis of eugenics — the majority of them women. Eugenics is a belief that future generations of humans could be improved through the careful selection of who reproduces. It was greatly influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and used scientific language to justify discrimination against those deemed “unfit” to have children.
The U.S. was a leader in eugenics, with Indiana passing the world’s first sterilization law in 1907. Over 30 states followed suit, with sterilizations peaking in the 1930s and 1940s. While sterilization began by targeting “mentally defective,” “feeble-minded” or disabled individuals, it soon became a means of population control for non-white racial groups.
Forced sterilization in some parts of the south specifically targeted poor Black women. The procedure was referred to as the “Mississippi Appendectomy,” coined by civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who advocated against involuntary sterilization after she was sterilized against her will during the removal of a uterine tumor.
Some teaching hospitals across the country performed these procedures as practice for medical students. State laws protected this inhumane violation that exposed women to unwanted hysterectomies without informed consent or a valid medical reason.
Despite the initial ruling in favor of abortion rights in Roe v. Wade in 1973, sterilization continued throughout the 1970s, particularly for populations deemed “undesirable.” A study by the U.S. General Accounting Office found that 3,406 American Indian women were sterilized without their consent between 1973 and 1976.
In 1975, a class-action lawsuit claimed the Los Angeles County USC Medical Center systematically sterilized Spanish-speaking mothers who delivered their babies via cesarean section. Though the hospital won the suit, the case exposed disturbing practices including coercion for consent and the exploitation of non-English speakers. This led to the repealing of California’s sterilization law, which had previously been upheld since 1909.
Many states still allow forced sterilization, which continues to threaten the reproductive rights of disabled people.
North Carolina is one of the few states where sterilization has been banned, but it was also one of the states infamous for the practice. The first sterilization law in the state was passed in 1919, but the practice did not begin until the passage of a 1929 law, which also created the North Carolina Eugenics Board. The last recorded sterilization was performed in 1973, and the eugenics law was not unanimously overturned until 2003.
The history of eugenics and sterilization also bears relevance to our University. Edwin Alderman, an alumnus, served as University president from 1896 to 1900. After his time here, he worked as the first president of my alma mater, the University of Virginia, for over 20 years. While there, he recruited scientists who practiced eugenics, conducting research that supported the Racial Integrity Act which prohibited interracial marriage, and the Eugenical Sterilization Act. Edwin Alderman remains the namesake of Alderman Library at UVA, as well as Alderman Residence Hall on our campus.
Sterilization is not identical to abortion, but the racial implications are parallel. Non-white women were more likely to be impacted by forced sterilization practices, and these women remain most impacted by restrictions on abortions.
Racial and ethnic data shows that the abortion rates for Black and Hispanic women are nearly triple and double that of white women, respectively. Some research attributes these disparities to the lack of access to and effective use of contraceptives. Many racial justice and women’s rights activists have spotlighted how restricting abortion will do more harm to non-white women who already face financial and structural barriers to accessing medical care.
How can forced sterilization that focused on stopping minority populations from growing and abortion restrictions coexist? One possible reason could be the decline in white birthrates and the “browning” of America, as the Milwaukee Independent describes.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported that the white population fell from 63.7 percent in 2010 to 57.8 percent in 2020, driven in part by falling birth rates among white women. Although white people continue to be the dominant racial group, our country’s population is more racially and ethnically diverse than ever before. The historical legacy of forced sterilization reflects efforts to control racial populations and so it could be that the current legal battle around abortion does the same.
And forced sterilizations are not so far in the past.
In 2020, a formal complaint was filed, alleging that unnecessary hysterectomies were being performed on immigrants in the custody of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement center in Georgia. This very recent incident echoes both the racial and paternalistic undertones of reproduction rights within our country, evident in the ongoing battle over abortion.
It’s unclear how this battle may end, but it is clear that this history should be corrected and women should be protected from reproductive violence. Though it would not change the damage done and the lives impacted, it would grant women the right of bodily autonomy to make choices for their own future.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.