Forced Sterilization

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Forced Sterilization





Historically, the practice of forced sterilization has varied according to time and place. Nevertheless, in every case, the practice has been implemented to serve the interests of the ruling elite. Right into the early twenty-first century, the forces of colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy have kept the practice alive in order to diminish the power of those deemed “inferior”or “unfit.”In particular, poor women of color have borne the brunt of this practice.


In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911), a proponent of eugenics theory, argued that eugenics should be used to ensure the survival of the fittest. The pseudoscience of eugenics is based on the belief that “defects”in the species are passed on from generation to generation through defective genes. Just as the quality of the species can be improved in animal and plant species by selective breeding, it was thought by some that similar principles could be applied to maintain the quality of the human species. Thus, drawing upon the principals of social Darwinism, hereditary factors were privileged while environmental factors were ignored. It was believed that the “unfit”were reproducing at a faster rate than the fit, and that this would lead to a degeneration of racial stock. Some believed that intellectual imbecility would have the consequence of contaminating the race, and that if those with mental defects are allowed to reproduce it would lower the quality of the racial stock. In addition to mental defectiveness, it was believed that “moral”imbecility would lead to a similar outcome.

Eugenics laws were in force in several Western and North American countries in the early part of the twentieth century. These laws gave governments the authority to prevent those deemed “unfit”from reproducing, and eugenics boards were set up to determine who would be deemed unfit. Experts in the field of eugenics, as well as those considered to be the custodians of moral standards in society, served as members of these boards. Eugenics was taught in almost all of the prominent institutions of higher learning during this period, thereby establishing its professional credibility. Those who got degrees in medicine, social work, and law, among other fields, were taught courses on this subject, and universities took an active part in nominating professionals to sit on the eugenics boards. These experts exuded a stance of objectivity and value neutrality in the true tradition of scientific positivism. The boards passed judgment on the fitness of individuals to reproduce, based on their judgment as to whether or not the individuals concerned were intellectual or moral imbeciles. The media gave ample exposure to the tenets of the “science,”making it popular among the public.

Eugenics was well received at a time when the conviction that the “white race”is superior to all other races was accepted without question. Emerging from an era of successful colonization, the belief in the divine mission of white people in saving humanity through their superior accomplishments was taken for granted. The fear that white race is in danger of being polluted and marginalized by nonwhite races was one of the major motivating factors that made this theory popular at the time. These fears were intensified by studies showing that the unfit were somehow more fecund than the fit. It was believed that, unless one stemmed the tide by preventing the unfit from reproducing, there was a real danger of a degeneration of white racial stock. Professionals in medicine and social work lent their expertise to implement this project, with the firm conviction that they were contributing to the establishment of a qualitatively superior society.

Racism, sexism, and classism intersected to produce the kinds of eugenics laws that were enacted and implemented at this time. Eugenics discourse was so popular that those who participated in the enactment of these laws and the implementation of policies derived from these laws acted with the conviction that it was a necessary and desirable project, fully justified on moral grounds. Many progressive thinkers, including well-known feminists, participated enthusiastically in the implementation of this project.


Thirty states in the United States passed eugenics laws between 1907 and 1931, and these laws were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1916 and 1927. By the end of the World War II, it was estimated that 40,000 sterilizations had taken place, mostly on poor white women. Because of racial segregation, it was not deemed necessary to sterilize black people at this time. This situation was to change, however. Between 1949 and 1960, for example, of the 104 surgical sterilizations performed in South Carolina mental hospitals, all but two were performed on blacks. All these sterilizations were done on women. Cox (1997) writes that these federally funded practices were prevalent in Alabama and North Carolina also in the 1970s.

The Native American population has also been subjected to forced sterilization. From 1973 to 1976, for example, 3,406 American Indian women were sterilized, many of whom were under twenty-one years old. For many decades, disdain towards American Indians as a people was pervasive among health professionals and social workers, and the eugenics boards were quick to characterize women of Indian origin as mentally defective, and therefore as unfit to reproduce. The Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center, which reports abuses by the Indian Health Services (IHS), reports that sterilization abuse is found to be still going on as late as the 1990s and DepoProvera and Norplant are routinely used as birth control methods. Paternalistic policies toward American Indians allow the federal government to make decisions on their behalf without their full consent or participation. Sterilization abuse has been going on for quite some time but they were investigated only since the 1970s. Carpio (2004) writes that even though some reforms have taken place with regard to conditions of sterilization, imposition of mainstream social standards and the inability of women to challenge professional health workers from the mainstream who have stereotyped beliefs about American Indians leads to continuation of these practices. Grekul et al. (2004) state that in Alberta, Canada, aboriginal people

were the main targets of Eugenic boards in the years 1929 to 1972. They were overrepresented among the cases presented for sterilization and overrepresented among those who were sterilized without consent. In the latter part of the twentieth century some of these women in Alberta sued the provincial government for damages and were compensated for this injustice.

In the neoliberal environment of the late twentieth century poor people have often been denied access to government and social support. They have been persuaded to undergo sterilization because they cannot afford to support large families. In the United States, individuals are expected to be self-reliant and to not expect social support, even when social conditions are not conducive for them to be self-reliant. Social assistance is available for sterilization purposes, however. Under these circumstances, those who suffer from poverty and destitution may be forced to “choose”sterilization to control their reproduction. People in this situation, who are mostly women of color, have been denied economic support but encouraged to use government subsidies to use sterilization or pharmaceutical methods such as Norplant for birth control. Writing in 1996, Broomfield stated that the bundle of so-called welfare reform measures with their family caps and Norplant provisions in place in the United States are essentially punitive. Instead of helping those in need to become able to take care of their children with provisions of education and skills training, they blame the victims and punish them. She argued that one theory behind the reform package is based on eugenic premise that certain people in society do not deserve to procreate. The often incorrect public perception of welfare recipient is based on stereotypes grounded in racism, sexism, and classism.


Forced sterilization as a method of population control is evident in the neoliberal climate of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In China, in the context of the “one-child policy,”sterilization and abortion are routinely used to slow population growth. Neo-Malthusian arguments are used to justify these policies. Linking economic development and population control in the so-called Third World has also become common practice. Very often, foreign aid is contingent upon the implementation of population-control policies, either through sterilization or the use of pharmaceuticals provided by Western corporations. United Nations agencies for population control have been closely involved with these projects. In these discourses on overpopulation, one often finds that it is not just the numbers that matter, but the kind of people. The targets of these programs are often those marginalized due to poverty or racial background. Poor women from Bangladesh and India and Indian women in Peru are important examples. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank have made population control a part of their structural adjustment policies (SAPs).

Under the presidency of Alberto Fujimori, during the period 1996 to 2000 at least 200,000 sterilizations took place in Peru. Poor and often illiterate women from the Quechua and Aymara indigenous ethnic groups were the majority of the victims (Robbins 2004). 60 Minutes aired a television program in October 1998 on American medical establishment, showing how Quinacrine, a drug that sterilizes women permanently, was planted in the uteri of more than 100,000 women through the initiative of two U.S. doctors without testing for their side effects. The doctors claimed that they were doing their country a social service by addressing the epidemic of population explosion in the Third World. State intervention for fertility control in India began under the pressure of aid-giving agencies such as the World Bank in the 1970s, which linked economic development to population control. Women were the main targets in the 1970s and 1980s even though vasectomies were performed in the mid- and late-1970s. Women were also the main targets in Bangladesh where food subsidies under the group feeding program (VGF) were given to only those with certificates showing that they had tubectomies (Miles and Shiva 1993).

Fortunately, there is a growing awareness around the world that it is not the overpopulation of the Third World but the unbridled consumerism and misuse of the Earth’s resources through poor management in the industrialized nations that are causing serious problems. But there is a long way to go before changes in policies and practices that have a negative impact on marginalized people are reversed.

Thus, racism in biological and cultural forms has led to policies and practices that are detrimental to the health and well-being of marginalized people everywhere. This is particularly true for nonwhite women in the lower echelons of the socioeconomic ladder. And more often than not, it is these marginalized women who are the targets of forced sterilization.

SEE ALSO Eugenics, History of; Feminism and Race; Forced Sterilization of Native Americans; Galton, Francis; Genocide and Ethnocide; Reproductive Rights.


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Vanaja Dhruvarajan