48 yrs ago, Minnie and her mentally disabled sister were sterilized without their knowledge, sparking lawsuit and change

Mildred Europa Taylor Feb 12, 2021 at 12:00pm

February 12, 2021 at 12:00 pm | History

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

February 12, 2021 at 12:00 pm | History

Minnie and her mentally ill sister were sterilized without their knowledge in 1973. Image via Voices of the Civil Rights Movement

Minnie Lee Relf, 14, and her 12-year-old mentally disabled sister, Mary Alice were on June 14, 1973, sterilized without their knowledge or consent. Nurses with the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic (a federally-funded agency) deceived their illiterate mother, making her believe that her girls were going to receive birth control shots. Instead, they ended up getting surgically sterilized, denying them their right to ever produce children.

Their elder sister, Katie, who was said to be “more cognitively advanced” than her younger sisters, was able to escape the procedure by hiding from the clinic nurse who came to their house. Two years before the unfortunate event, the sisters had moved into public housing with their mom, their older sister, Katie, and the rest of the family. Analysts said the clinic targeted the girls for the procedure because they were “poor, Black, and living in public housing.”

Minnie and Mary, after the procedure on June 14, told their parents that they underwent surgery instead of receiving shots. Within days, on June 27, 1973, the Relf family, with help from the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed a lawsuit against the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic, its parent agency, and the Office of Economic Opportunity, which provided federal funding to the clinic.

The lawsuit brought to the fore the decades-old sterilization abuse of largely poor, minority women that was being funded by the federal government. An estimated 100,000 to 150,000 poor people were sterilized every year under federally-funded programs, the district court found. The Relf sisters’ case also exposed how scores of women on welfare had been forced to consent to sterilization else their welfare benefits would be terminated.

At the end of the day, the lawsuit “led to the termination of federal funding for coerced/involuntary sterilization, and increased regulation of sterilization procedures for children and the mentally disabled,” a report noted. Essentially, the lawsuit led to the requirement that doctors obtain informed consent before performing sterilization procedures.

As far back as slavery days, different policies and practices were put in place to control the population of enslaved Africans. One would think such practices would be done with once slavery was abolished, but just like many other race-related issues, they were not. Eugenics, the movement that is aimed at improving the genetic composition of the human race, was quickly adapted in America to create a society with positive traits. Its origins could be traced back to Sir Francis Galton, who believed that the British were superior in the world because of their genetic make up and thus promoted the upholding of these ‘positive traits’  by giving incentives to suitable couples to have kids and procreate.

This outlook would result into laws in America that would be used to sterilise the ‘unwanted’ members of the society, including immigrants, who were referred to as the ‘socially inadequate’ group and the “feebleminded persons, epileptics, insane persons…,” “persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority…, and” “mentally or physically defective.” The first bill to ever-been passed with such a proposal was in Texas in 1849 by Gordon Lincecum, biologist and physician. The bill was never voted on but it paved way for other states to propose similar laws including Michigan, whose 1897 law failed. In 1905, Pennsylvania’s governor vetoed such a law and in 1907, Indiana passed a similar one. By the 1930s, a total of 33 states had a similar law.

In the early 20th century, either race was almost equally sterilised but eventually, African Americans bore the brunt of the program, with numbers increasing even after most of these laws were repealed. Some of these cases were well documented and included doctors lying to black and other minority women that they were suffering from reproductive conditions that were life-threatening and the only way to save them was to either remove their uteri or undergo tubal ligation. 

Others were sterilised without their knowledge, only to find out years later.

Statistics vary from one state to another but the program in the U.S. had a huge impact on a global scale. It played a huge role in Nazi Germany, where it was used for ethnic cleansing. It was after this that many Americans were repulsed by the sterilization program, reducing its popularity by a huge margin. However, the programs continued well into the 1970s.

Although the impact of this movement was far-reaching, not so many states have offered a compensation plan to the victims and their families. In 2010, North Carolina set up an office for “women and men, many of whom were poor, under educated, institutionalized, sick or disabled [who] were sterilized by choice, force or coercion under the authorization of the North Carolina Eugenics Board” from 1929 until 1974 to place their claim.

Virginia became the second state with such a program in 2015, 14 years after offering an apology to the victims, one-fifth being Black women.

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