We Will Not Be Erased: Confronting the History of Black Women and Forced Sterilization

by Anna Nti-Asare

“More children from the fit, less from the unfit.”

These words were supposedly spoken by Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, and resonate with contemporary attempts to eradicate Black existence. In response to these words, I want to bring light to an issue that many forget or are unaware of. It is a history of social injustice that affects Black women’s reproductive rights and the civil rights of people of color as a whole. Furthermore, it is a reminder that the attempts to erase our people have come in many different forms.

I am talking about the little known history of forced sterilization.

The dominant class in the U.S. has long controlled Black people's fertility. Black women were encouraged to have more children during slave times when it served plantation owners’ wealth to have more Black bodies. In this sense Black people were forced to breed and create more property. However, after the American Civil War, it became less desirable to have an increasing Black population—especially one that sought basic human rights and equality. Thus, the abuse of sterilization procedures reached its height in the 1950's and 60's and has continued well into the 2000s.
Forced sterilization is the act of taking away someone's ability to have a child without them giving their consent. It can be done through various procedures including hysterectomies (the removal of the uterus) and tubal ligation (the tying, cutting, blocking, or burning of a woman's fallopian tubes). As early as 1907, the United States instituted public policy that gave the government the right "to sterilize unwilling and unwitting people." Such policies were part of a larger eugenics movement that deemed people of color as inferior members of society whose population needed to be contained and kept from procreating. In fact, the US was the first country to use compulsory sterilization programs for the purpose of eugenics.

With this, women of predominantly ethnic minorities—such as Black, Latino, and Native American—were sterilized against their will in many states, most of the time when they were in the hospital after giving birth to a child. For example, in Sunflower Country Mississippi during the 1960s, 60% of Black women living there were sterilized at Sunflower City Hospital without their permission. Racist physicians felt they were performing a service by sterilizing Black women without telling them.

This problematic thinking led to over 65,000 sterilizations in 33 states under state funded programs in the United States. California led the nation with nearly 20,000 sterilizations. Targeting Black and Latino women specifically, this practice was rationalized by concerns that these groups were bad parents and were bringing more burdens like themselves into society.

One would think and hope that forced sterilization ended before this millennium, but the rhetoric of “performing a service” and keeping “bad parents” from creating more “burdens” carried forth at least until very recent years. For instance, it was uncovered that nearly 150 female prisoners in California institutions were sterilized between 2006 and 2010 without consent. These practices targeted those deemed “likely to return to prison in the future.” One practitioner defended the $147,460 spent on sterilizations saying: “Over a 10-year period, that isn't a huge amount of money compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children.” It wasn't until September 2014, that California enacted Bill SB 1135 that bans sterilization in correctional facilities.

Forced sterilizations have affected the reproductive rights of Black people in many ways, one of these being through the potential correlation with a mistrust of birth control. One source points out: “As African Americans grew more aware of their history in the 1960s, they became increasingly suspicious of government-sponsored birth control and the Pill. For many it seemed plausible that birth control was part of a larger plan to keep the Black population down and limit Black political power.”

These facts are important to become familiar with, as remembering our histories, speaking our truths, and spreading our knowledge is crucial in dealing with more contemporary attempts to erase Black lives. This vicious history is not far removed from current attacks. We are right to look at mass incarceration, police brutality, and the war on drugs as apples falling from the same tree of white supremacy and we are right to hope they will be deemed as unethical—just as the covered up history of forced sterilization now is.

Photo: Shutterstock

Anna Nti-Asare is a graduate student at the University of Cambridge in the UK, pursuing her MPhil in Multidisciplinary Gender Studies and she recently graduated from Stanford University. She is deeply interested in gender and race studies in the US especially as they relate to youth and popular culture. Follow her on Twitter: @annas__tea.

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