Calls for compensation for US sterilisations

Tens of thousands of poor people and those of colour were forcibly sterilised between the 1920s and 1970s.

Elaine Riddick was sterilised without her knowledge as part of North Carolina's eugenics programme [AP]

Chicago, United States – Elaine Riddick, 60, was 13-years old when she was raped and became pregnant. Riddick carried out her pregnancy and immediately after giving birth to her son, she was sterilised without her consent.

Because both of her parents were alcoholics and her mother was in prison, Riddick was raised by her grandmother in the state of North Carolina. The family relied on government assistance at the time. Riddick says the social worker assigned to them illegally obtained her grandmother’s signature on the sterilisation consent form – her grandmother was illiterate and unaware of what she agreed to.

It wasn’t until she was 19 that Riddick found out what happened to her after her delivery. During this time, she and her husband were trying to start a family, but were unable to conceive. Confused, she went to see a doctor to find out what was wrong.

“He told me I had been butchered,” Riddick says. “I was totally devastated when I found out. I was humiliated. I blamed myself that they did that to me.”

It is better for 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.

by - Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, Supreme Court Justice

In addition to the emotional consequences, Riddick experienced severe physical side effects including haemorrhaging, fainting, and unusually long menstrual periods. She eventually needed a hysterectomy at the age of 44. “Nobody should go into a woman’s body and invade it like that,” Riddick told Al Jazeera.

Riddick’s experience was not unusual. An estimated 7,600 people considered mentally deficient by public health officials and sterilised under North Carolina’s eugenics programme, which ran from 1929 until 1974. The programme aimed to prevent the birth of the mentally disabled, criminals and others the state judged as “morons”, “unfit”, and “feebleminded”. Some victims were as young as 10-years old.

In July 2013, North Carolina state lawmakers passed a landmark $10 million compensation plan for victims of its eugenics programme.

Neighbouring Virginia state, however, has refused to pay reparations so far for the estimated 7,300 people sterilized between 1924-79. Opponents claim the state simply does not have the funds.

Now some Virginia lawmakers are pressuring the state to offer compensation, sponsoring the HB 1529 bill that would pay $50,000 to each victim.

More than 60,000 Americans were forcibly sterilised from 1907 through the 1970s. 

The effort was promoted throughout the US with proponents saying sterilisations were necessary to prevent overpopulation and the subsequent drain on government resources by “defectives”.

“It is better for 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,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr in a key 1927 ruling.  

California ‘justice’

While sterilisation promoted by state institutions may seem like a practice of the distant past in the United States, the grassroots organisation Justice Now has documented that 116 prisoners were sterilised without official approval by tubal ligation for the purpose of birth control between 2006-2010.

The Center for Investigative Reporting corroborated the findings in a separate investigation. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation later found the illegal sterilisations done during labour and delivery began as a regular programme in 1997, and the annual rate of such surgeries surged after 2006.

Elaine Riddick experienced severe physical side effects [AP]

Some female prisoners alleged they were pressured by prison health officials to have the procedure – which requires approval on a case-by-case basis by top state health officials. Those approvals, however, were never sought.

Prison health officials interviewed by the Center for Investigative Reporting defended the sterilisations, saying they protected the women from medical problems and ultimately saved the state from making welfare payments.

Courtney Hooks, communications director of Justice Now, says when it comes to eugenics, California has one of the most sordid histories.

About 20,000 sterilisations were performed on patients in state institutions between 1909 and 1979 in California. Widespread sterilisation in the early 1970s took place in the Los Angeles County hospital. Many of the female victims were Mexican, African American, Puerto Rican, and Native American.

“We’re really a part of ending that legacy and coming to terms with that history,” Hooks told Al Jazeera. “Our bodies matter. Our families matter. We have the right not to have our organs removed.”

In response to the California prison abuses, Justice Now has launched a petition demanding that Governor Jerry Brown and legislative leaders pass a bill to compensate the people illegally sterilised in prison.

Race-based sterilisation

Hooks says she believes prison administrators viewed people of colour and those living in poverty as “dangerous”.

“Based on the interviews with women and quotes gathered for the report, we can see a motivation of eugenics preventing people from reproduction and motherhood because they’re seen as unfit and unworthy,” she says. “It begs the question of what’s going on in other places.”

The anti-racism group Center for New Community says Puerto Rican, Mexican, African American, and Native American women have historically been the prime target for sterilisation in the US.

The ideologies and beliefs that women of colour should not reproduce are alive and well in our society ... This is racism and classism at its worst and it's pretty much covered up.

by - Elena Gutiérrez, University of Illinois at Chicago

April Callen, communications director for Center for New Community, told Al Jazeera it is important to look at the states where sterilisation occurred to understand why women of colour have been targeted.

“Not only has poverty, mental illness, and ‘illegitimate’ child birth been grounds for sterilisation, but also criminalisation,” Callen says. “Since this country has historically operated under a white Eurocentric capitalist patriarchal rule, it makes ‘sense’ that women of colour would be seen as the least able to know what is best for their bodies and exercise those rights.”

Beyond prisons

It appears modern-day forced sterilisation is not limited to the prison system. In 2010, Cynthia Strickland Perkins, 29, of Kokomo, Indiana, went into labour at 34 weeks. Perkins, who is African American, says her placenta tore, which complicated her pregnancy.

While she was in extreme pain, she says her nurse coerced her into signing a sterilisation consent form. “I was so out of it from drugs and couldn’t focus. I wanted this woman out of my face,” Perkins says.

Her regular doctor, who was not present at the delivery, had pressured her into the procedure beforehand, but he never explained why she shouldn’t get pregnant anymore. Perkins says the only reason he provided was that she was diabetic.

“I know how to control my diabetes. It wasn’t his call to tell me what to do,” she says. 

Like Riddick, Perkins has had severe emotional consequences since her surgery. “I wanted to have more children. I still feel so sad. I just wish I had a normal delivery because I wouldn’t have signed those papers,” she says.

Elena Gutiérrez is an associate professor of Gender and Women’s Studies & Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and author of Fertile Matters: The Politics of Mexican-Origin Women’s Reproduction.

Gutiérrez says she doesn’t know how prevalent the sterilisation of non-Caucasian women continues to be but adds it is still promoted in the US.

“How systematic it is, I’m not really sure, but the ideologies and beliefs that women of colour should not reproduce are alive and well in our society,” Gutiérrez says.

“More and more of this is being brought to light. This is racism and classism at its worst and it’s pretty much covered up. I agree that this is something that we need to be vigilant about.”

Source: Al Jazeera