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Forced Sterilization And The Reproductive Rights Movement

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The fight for reproductive rights has been a long and continuous one that has been prominent for centuries. A woman’s right to have control and power over her own body and its abilities has been historically difficult to achieve, due to the patriarchal structure of our society, and is a battle that women are still fighting globally. However, there was rapid growth of the movement in the second wave of feminism that happened between the 1960s and 1980s. The rise of forced sterilization in the United States began in the mid 1900s and has had a lasting impact on the Reproductive Rights movement and the activists within it. Coerced and forced sterilization was a racist, elitist tactic that, in conjunction with other aspects of our country’s history of white supremacy, created a biological hierarchy in society that is still embedded in today’s culture and practice. Eugenics lobbyists and white nationalists allowed their racist ideals to be the motive for violating reproductive rights of minority women and traumatizing their bodies just to keep them from reproducing. As a result of the emphasis on sterilizing the minority population and forcing them to not have the ability to reproduce, the Reproductive Rights movement became a divided, exclusive movement at a time where unity and intersectionality in the movement was needed the most in order for progress to be made.

Within my research, I aimed to identify the position of minority women in the Reproductive Rights movement and support the theory that forced sterilization in the 1900s defined this position and differentiated marginalized women in the movement. Exploring the history of forced sterilization provides background to the divide in reproductive rights activism and connects to the lack of inclusivity and attention on minority women’s issues in the second wave of feminism. Understanding the history also provides an explanation as to why minority women are still targeted and encouraged not to have children in modern circumstances. Analyzing the origins of eugenics, the timeline of laws that allowed forced sterilization, and how the affected women organized against this issue allows for a full grasp on the experience of marginalized women in the Reproductive Rights movement and how this experience has aged.

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In order to interpret how forced sterilization became common, one must know what movement the procedure stemmed from: the eugenics movement. Eugenics is a concept that began as a method of Gregor Mendel, a scientist in the late 1800s, used to cross-breed and create plant hybrids that contained all the best genes a plant could have in order to ensure strength and survival of the plant.[footnoteRef:1] Although eugenics had its starting place in plant sciences, American biologists began to adopt this ideology and apply it to human genetics. This shift was often referred to as ‘new’ eugenics, or neo-eugenics, especially when targeting women of color. The biologists believed that if you could genetically alter a plant in order to give it the best traits, human traits could be altered in the same way. Maggie Lawrence includes in her piece that “American biologist Charles Davenport quickly became a main proponent of the eugenics movement, promising Americans that certain traits (for example, intelligence, cleanliness, and work-ethic, among others) were predetermined by race, temperament, and status.”[footnoteRef:2] Davenport’s argument that “you could indeed hybridize strong individuals to create the best human” would inspire the eugenics movement in the United States and earn him the title as one of the “fathers” of eugenics.[footnoteRef:3] [1: Lawrence, Maggie, ‘Reproductive Rights and State Institutions: The Forced Sterilization of Minority Women in the United States’. Senior Theses, Trinity College, Hartford, CT (2014), 13.] [2: Lawrence, “Reproductive,” 14.] [3: Ibid, 14.]

People who believed that eugenics would create a better future society believed that society would be ideal if those who had a certain ‘undesirable’ race, socioeconomic status, and disability were not allowed to reproduce. Although the human application of eugenics would prove to be inevitably racist, this did not stop the nationalist mindset of the United States from permitting eugenics activism to be widespread. This enforcement of eugenics became prominent through several events, organizations and even legislation. In 1907, the first law in support of eugenic sterilization (specifically for the mentally ill) was passed in Indiana and this law, which was later referred to as the “Indiana Plan,” “became the benchmark for the rest of the nation.”[footnoteRef:4] Thirty states followed Indiana in their legislation of mandatory sterilization and the law was not officially repealed until 1974, when over 2,500 people had already been sterilized legally in Indiana.[footnoteRef:5] In addition, by the 1970s, a total of 70,000 people were forcibly sterilized nationwide.[footnoteRef:6] Through the efforts of eugenics lobbyists and supporters, the idea of forced sterilization as a way to reduce the reproduction of the ‘unfit’ population became normalized and the popular opinions of who was ‘fit’ versus ‘unfit’ to reproduce became hard to refute. [4: Lombardo, Paul A., ed. Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008. 26.] [5: Ibid, 37. ] [6: Roberts, Dorothy E. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. First Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1999. ]

The determination by eugenicists of who was ‘fit’ to reproduce and who was ‘unfit’ was originally grounded with the intentions of not reproducing mentally disabled people in order to rid the population of “confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists,” but this evolved into the inclusion of more ‘undesirable’ individuals in the ‘unfit’ population.[footnoteRef:7] As the Reproductive Rights movement progressed in the mid-1900s, as well as the Civil Rights Movement, forced sterilization, with intentions of eugenics in mind, became more detectable in marginalized groups of women. These women were facing intense coercion to be sterilized and were being manipulated into doing so, while white women and men were not at all affected. The ‘unfit’ population targeted to be violated of their reproductive rights was refocused to women of color, immigrant women, low-income women, and physically disabled women. Whereas, on the other hand, the ‘fit’ population still entailed white, upper/middle-class women (who were often Anglo-Saxon Protestant). It became immediately obvious that the restriction of control these minority women had over their own bodies was an act of racism intended to limit their identity and culture in the United States, even though they deserved the right to have a choice with their reproductive ability as much as any other woman did. [7: Lombardo, “Century,” 98.]

Works Cited

  1. Bader, E. J. (2006). Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice. Off Our Backs, 36(4), 82–83. Retrieved from
  2. Caron, Simone M. “Who Chooses?: American Reproductive History Since 1830.” Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008.
  3. Follet, Joyce C. 2019. “Making Democracy Real: African American Women, Birth Control, and Social Justice, 1910–1960.” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 18 (1): 94–151.
  4. Fujimoto, Victor Y, Tarun Jain, Ruben Alvero, Lawrence M Nelson, William H Catherino, Moshood Olatinwo, Erica E Marsh, Diana Broomfield, Herman Taylor, and Alicia Y Armstrong. 2010. “Proceedings from the Conference on Reproductive Problems in Women of Color.” Fertility and Sterility 94 (1): 7–10. doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2009.12.068.
  5. Kluchin, Rebecca M., Fit to Be Tied: Sterilization and Reproductive Rights in America, 1950-1980, Rutgers University Press, 2009. ProQuest Ebook Central,
  6. Kulp, Denise, and Jennie Mcknight. ‘BETWEEN OURSELVES REPRODUCTIVE FREEDOM IN THE BLACK COMMUNITY: A FORUM WOMEN OF COLOR.’ Off Our Backs 16, no. 4 (1986): 2-4.
  7. Lawrence, Maggie, ‘Reproductive Rights and State Institutions: Forced Sterilization of Minority Women in the United States’. Senior Theses, Trinity College, Hartford, CT 2014.
  8. Trinity College Digital Repository, h p://
  9. Luna, Zakiya T. 2010. “Marching Toward Reproductive Justice: Coalitional (Re) Framing of the March for Women’s Lives*.” Sociological Inquiry 80 (4): 554–78. doi:10.1111/j.1475-682X.2010.00349.x.
  10. Nelson, Jennifer. Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement. New York University Press, 2003. Accessed 16 Sept. 2019.
  11. Patel, Priti. 2017. “Forced Sterilization of Women As Discrimination.” Public Health Reviews 38 (1): 1–12. doi:10.1186/s40985-017-0060-9.
  12. Roberts, Dorothy E. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. First Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.
  13. Solinger, Rickie. 2005. Pregnancy and Power: A Short History of Reproductive Politics in America. New York: New York University Press. Accessed November 18, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central.
  14. Volscho, Thomas. 2011. “Racism and Disparities in Women’s Use of the Depo-Provera Injection in the Contemporary Usa.” Critical Sociology 37 (5): 673–88.

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