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The disturbing history of forced sterilisation of black women in U.S.

January 19, 2019 at 01:00 pm | Women

Nduta Waweru

Nduta Waweru | Contributor

January 19, 2019 at 01:00 pm | Women

Photo: Indy week

Conversation about reproduction especially of black people has almost always had a racial undertone to it. As far back as slavery days, different policies and practices were put in place to control the population of African slaves. 

One would think such practices would be done with once slavery was abolished, but just as 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 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eventually, African Americans bore the brunt of the program, with numbers increasing even after most of these laws were repealed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. Elaine Riddick was a victim of such state machinations. She was deemed “”feebleminded” and “promiscuous” and therefore, a candidate for the sterilisation program. Her crime: she had a child at 13 years old. It did not matter that she had been  kidnapped and molested. It also did not matter that social workers coerced her illiterate grandmother to sign a document consenting to the procedure.

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 sterilisation 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 of which were black women.

In 2018, California, a state where sterilisation was carried out as recent as 2010, discussed a compensation bill but it failed to pass the Assembly Appropriation Committee meeting in September.

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