Eugenics and Forced Sterilization

During my senior year of high school, I took a class called Human Rights and Genocide. A lot was covered in a course that only spanned half the time of a typical high school course—it was an elective offered at my high school, so instead of being every day all year long, it was every day for the first half of the year. In those five months, we covered topics ranging from the Holocaust and genocides in the past to violations of human rights that are happening today. This class was probably one of the most memorable I’d taken in high school, but I didn’t really expect it to connect to my future education. I was really wrong with that expectation. Less than a year later in Literature, Medicine, and Racism, one of the topics we covered in Human Rights and Genocide came to my attention again: forced sterilization.

While taking this class in high school, I was assigned a group research assignment about violations of human rights that were happening in the United States in more recent history. In our presentation, my classmates and I talked about how there has been a history of forced sterilization used as a form of eugenics (a method of selective breeding used within human populations). A lot of the cases of forced sterilization we encountered while doing this project were a result of ableist actions—disabled and mentally ill people (both men and women in this case) were often sterilized without their knowledge and/or consent. Although most cases like this were reported to have happened in the mid-20th century, in an article from PBS by Lisa Ko, it was reported that “California prisons are said to have authorized sterilizations of nearly 150 female inmates between 2006 and 2010.” Actions like this have caused immense destruction in the lives of so many, and the only act of reparation offered at this point has been the Eugenics Compensation Act. Ko’s article for TBS also briefly covers this act. It was created in late 2015 to compensate and help the victims of forced sterilization that are still living. However, this doesn’t undo these horrifying actions.

Inmates, mentally ill, and disabled people were not the only groups to be forced to undergo sterilization without their consent. Another group that we discussed in our presentation for Human Rights and Genocide, that was mentioned in the PBS article, and that was a very important part of our class discussions and content of Literature, Medicine, and Racism was People of Color—specifically African Americans.

Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, a resource used for this class, covers forced and involuntary sterilizations against African American women in a historical and factual manner: “Today, one-third of all adult Mississippi women and 57 percent of all Mississippi women sixty-five and older say they have undergone a hysterectomy. Sometimes the physician removed the woman’s uterus on some pretext after coercing or tricking her into assent for unnecessary sterilization. The women were also sterilized while unconscious, as Fannie Lou Hamer was. In the south, rendering black women infertile without their knowledge was during other surgery was so common that the procedure was called a ‘Mississippi appendectomy’” (Washington, 204). The woman that Washington mentions here, Fannie Lou Hamer, was mentioned earlier in this chapter. In 1961, Hamer went to the hospital for stomach pains, and while she was in surgery for that issue, the surgeon proceeded with sterilization without receiving her informed consent.

Again, this all is rooted in eugenics. And it comes up a lot more throughout our nation’s history. In Medical Apartheid, Washington also mentions, “Twenty-eight percent of the blacks surveyed in the late 1960s agreed that ‘encouraging blacks to use birth control is comparable to trying to eliminate this group from society’” (Washington, 198). This survey was conducted in the same decade Fannie Lou Hamer and so many others underwent forced sterilization. Cases like these created a fear of genocide (the concept of genocide is typically rooted in eugenics).

Eugenics and forced sterilization are and have been very real issues for a long time, and they have even appeared in the fiction literature we have covered for this class. Percival Everett’s Zulus brings up forced sterilization as a way of slowly ending the human race. After years of nuclear and chemical warfare, the planet became somewhat uninhabitable for future generations, so the government forced all women to undergo sterilization procedures. Alice Achitophel, the main character in Zulus, received a message from the government telling her that she was required to go to the hospital to be sterilized thirteen years before the novel’s story begins. However, she never went to the hospital and they never called her or reached out to her in any way, so “she had not become sterilized like every other woman” (Everett, 12). This action of hers plays a huge role in the remainder of the novel as she becomes pregnant.

Seeing how forced sterilization has connections to so many things and has such a deep and disturbing history in our nation, we should recognize the effects that it has had on so many different people. From appearing in my high school education to our nation’s medical history to literature for this class, we can still see the effects and learn about how devastating they were—even in recent years. The role eugenics has played in this is undeniable, and although the Eugenics Compensation Act is beneficial, there needs to be more done for these victims who have had so much taken from them. Regardless of one’s race, ability, or personal history, it is completely wrong to take away someone’s capability to have a family if they ever choose to.

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