The Legality of Forced Sterilizations

The Young Lords mobilized as a radical social activist group founded by Puerto Rican youth in the 1960s. They demanded reform in health care, education, housing, employment, and policing. One of the injustices this organization was also fighting against was the forced sterilization of women. Often times these women did not know what was being done to them, until it was too late. [1]

Horrifically, these unwanted procedures were lawful in the United States. In 1927 the Supreme Court case Buck vs. Bell, upheld a state’s right to forcibly sterilize a person considered unfit to procreate. [2] The case centers on Carrie Buck, a poor woman who was sexually assaulted and resulted in a child out of wedlock. She is declared feeble minded and is sent to a colony of epileptics and feebleminded. At this time her mother has also been sentenced to the camp, mostly for being a poor, unwed women. The head doctor decides to sterilize Carrie and appoints a sham of a lawyer to file a lawsuit on Carrie’s behalf. The lawsuit was brought forth in order for the court to legally approve the forced sterilization of those deemed “unfit”. The case then gets appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court decides 8-1 against Carrie that forced sterilizations are legal and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes writes,

“It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” [3]

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The victims of these awful forced sterilizations were people who had been labeled “mentally deficient,” as well as those who were deaf, blind, and diseased. Minorities, poor people, and “promiscuous” women were also targeted. [4] NPR’s Fresh Air had an episode interviewing Adam Cohen who has recently published a book on this epidemic entitled, Imbeciles. In it he declares this is the worst decision the Supreme Court has ever made. Additionally he writes how the Nazis looked to these policies as a model during the Holocaust.

PBS has also created a documentary entitled No Mas Bebes, which depicts the 1975 class action lawsuit in Los Angeles brought forth by Latino women who were forcibly sterilized. Supposedly they signed consent forms, but many of the women do not recall signing any forms or signed a form when they were currently in labor and did not know the forms contained permission for the doctors to sterilize them. [5]

Unfortunately this issue has not been resolved. Between 2006 and 2010 at least 150 women were sterilized illegally in California prisons. [6] This report found the inmates were sterilized without the prison administrators getting each case authorized for the procedures from a state board. The point of this requirement is to have state officials outside of the prison review whether a proposed sterilization is actually consensual. Institutionalized people are especially vulnerable to having their “consent” taken away from them, in ways that would not happen if they were free persons. The majority of the women in prisons are minorities, facing the same injustices the Young Lords were fighting against in 1960s.

 

[1] http://www.bronxmuseum.org/exhibitions/presente-the-young-lords-in-new-york

[2] http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/03/07/469478098/the-supreme-court-ruling-that-led-to-70-000-forced-sterilizations

[3] http://exhibits.hsl.virginia.edu/eugenics/

[4] http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/03/07/469478098/the-supreme-court-ruling-that-led-to-70-000-forced-sterilizations

[5] http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/no-mas-bebes/

[6] http://abcnews.go.com/ABC_Univision/doctors-california-prisons-sterilized-female-inmates-authorizations/story?id=19610110

Photo Credit:

http://bellingen.indywatch.org/archiver/bellingen.indywatch.org/resources/timemachine/2015/230/index.html

http://allisonbruning.blogspot.com/2014/02/progressive-era-america-eugenics.html

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