It has been recognized that women in prison have numerous gender and social issues that need to be considered. These considerations include less access to health services, histories of physical abuse, mental health needs, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, and lower access to education. Women require different health and social attention than men when incarcerated. This paper looks at the involuntary sterilization of women prisoners, and various gender, class, and race concepts. The history of forced sterilization, the effects it had on women, considerations for a woman’s right to choose, and how we go on as a society is also covered.
Some 60,000, Americans were sterilized under laws in 27 states. During the 1900s, eugenics programs were developed to dispose of unwanted people. The purpose of these programs was to create an ideal person. According to Lawrence (2014), “scientists compiled research, conducted experiments and stored information about citizens to learn about the ideal” (p. 3) qualities of a normal person. With this data, scientists worked along with other systems of government to make advancements in eugenics. We also learned how this desire for a perfect society was controlled by sterilization in the video Eugenics in America: Then & Now. The narrator mentions “both movements, eugenics and birth control, were working to assist the humanity towards the elimination of the unfit. Eugenics primarily through sterilization and birth control through the false empowerment of minority women when really, the birth control was in an effort to reduce reproduction in certain populations” (Etrav317, 2011).
Lawrence (2014) explains, “through a combination of propaganda, organizations, and social experiments, these eugenics programs targeted” (p. 4) immigrants and minorities. Then, they were deported, confined, and/or forced to be sterilized. According to Black (2003), “California eugenicists played an important, although little known, role in the American eugenics movement’s campaign for ethnic cleansing” (p. 2). California and other state prisons would soon follow suit and echo the eugenics era with the number of forced sterilizations they conducted. Not only were women targeted, but many were minorities.
The most reliable option for safe and effective birth control has been presented as sterilizations. Magos and Chapman (2004), explain that “transcervical sterilization, with or without visualization via hysteroscopy, is often described as an ideal solution to the problem of sterilization” (p. 705). Initially, sterilizations were used for the maintenance of a woman’s health for example, if she was suffering from tuberculosis. Later, sterilizations would be performed in the US after the introduction of legislation on eugenic sterilizations, in 1907.
The first physician to perform the surgery by electro-cauterization using cautery wire was in 1916 by Robert Dickinson from New York. In the 1950s, laparoscopic approaches were explored. Transcervical tubal sterilization was studied again in the 1970s. According to the Boston’s Women’s Health Book Collective (2011), “the problem of sterilization abuse led to federal sterilization guidelines in 1979, but the practice of performing medically unindicated hysterectomies continued for many years” (p.630). Despite these guidelines being established in California, state prisons were still forcing women prisoners to be sterilized as late as 2010. In the early 2000s over 150 women prisoners were sterilized in California institutions. Because the ban on sterilizations was implemented in 1979, these procedures were illegal.
Often, the stories of these women were unaccounted for because of their gender, race, and class. The victims were disregarded because of their status before and after. Some women may encounter difficulties or hardships during these surgeries. The procedure may also lead to emotional suffering, including depression and PTSD. Women also face emotional trauma to their identities and egos. These identity issues affect their womanhood and minority status.
Typically, the women who are selected for sterilization are considered because of their gender, race, and incarceration status. It is not random but rather systematic and engrained in ridding society of unwanted people. People who may be considered degenerates. As Lawrence explains (2014), “these women are targeted because they are minority women; in becoming victims, many of these women become uncomfortable with their gender and race” (p. 22).
Sterilization is a procedure that removes a woman’s right to reproduce. This surgical procedure includes removing or cauterizing the fallopian tubes. It is a permanent surgery that cannot be revised. This can be damaging if not performed properly or the decision was made under coercion or duress.
Another emotion of women prisoners in the 1900s was the feeling of being unwanted, not needed, or unhuman. Their identity of being a woman was taken away along with their basic freedoms. The state of California, prison institutions, and doctors made these women feel undesirable. Moreover, the connection between forced sterilization, race, and class cannot be denied. Statistics show that there is a clear association between minorities and women being sterilized. In 1990, almost double the number of black women were forcibly sterilized in the US compared to white women. According to an excerpt from Krase (2014), “black women have also long been the targets of population control and have been disproportionately affected by sterilization abuse” (p. 4). In the book Doing Harm, Dusenbery imparts “racist assumptions effectively kept many women of color from getting diagnosed” (p. 223).
A Woman’s Right
History and evidence show that pressured sterilization of people regardless of their status is a shameful violation of their human rights. Moreover, for women in prison, they are forced to undergo a medical procedure at an already volatile time. Not only is the topic of sterilization controversial, but also the issue of choice. In Robert’s book, Killing the Black Body (1997), “the feminist focus on gender and identification of male domination as the source of reproductive repression often overlooks the importance of racism in shaping our understanding of reproductive liberty and the degree of the choice that women really have” (p. 5). Racial minorities and low-income women remain targets based on their social, economic, and cultural circumstances.
Prisons and state institutions mimic a patriarchal government where men create the policies. Only recently has attention been drawn to the extensive unawareness of women’s rudimentary human rights. Gender considerations need to be made within the criminal justice systems. Described best by Staton et al. (2003), “although women have gender-specific needs related to drug misuse problems, health care concerns, and mental health issues, research indicated that prison- and jail-based treatments are typically modeled after male programs” (p. 235). The methods used for handling women prisoners are failing. Their gender needs are much different than their male counterparts and must be considered along with their basic human rights.
A woman’s choice, health, and safety are vital human rights. These women are often damaged. They are victims of mental health problems, violence, and abuse, or drug and alcohol addiction. Additional harm comes to incarcerated women when they are forced or coerced into an irreversible surgical procedure. Their wellbeing must be established and enforced on all levels to improve the dignity of these incarcerated women.
The eugenics crusade and the forced sterilization of unwanted people had a life-changing influence on many women in the world. Profiled because of their class, gender, or race, these women were exposed to procedures that were invasive to their bodies. The sterilizations also clouded their judgment, hindered their right of choice, and changed their bodies forever. All these intersectional issues continued to harm women who were already fragile. Many of the women prisoners who experienced sterilization lost their identities and had their bodies violated.
Moving forward, the state and society should extend restorative justice. This would allow the women who were victims an opportunity to tell their stories. Other considerations could include retribution, compensation, and acknowledgment to the victims. Healing these damaged women is the first step to improving our human population.
- Black, E. (2003). The Horrifying American Roots of Nazi Eugenics. History News Network, pp. 1-21, last modified September 2003. http://hnn.us/article/1796.
- Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. (2011). Our Bodies, Ourselves. New York: Simon & Schuster
- Dusenbery, M. (2018). Doing Harm: The truth about how bad medicine and lazy science leave women dismissed, misdiagnosed, and sick. New York, NY: HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
- Etrav317. (2011, December 16). Eugenics in America: Then & Now. Darwinian Revolution Final Project Fall 2011. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KCSrpAbcWM
- Krase, K. (2014). History of Forced Sterilization and Current US Abuses. Politics of Women’s Health. https://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/book-excerpts/health-article/forced-sterilization/
- Lawrence, M. (2014). ‘Reproductive Rights and State Institutions: The Forced Sterilization of Minority Women in the United States’. Senior Theses, Trinity College, Hartford, CT 2014. Trinity College Digital Repository, http://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/theses/390
- Magos, A. & Chapman, L. (2004). Hysteroscopic Tubal Sterilization. Obstetrics and Gynecology Clinics of North America, 31(3): pp. 705-719. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ogc.2004.06.007
- Staton, M., Leukefeld, C., & Webster, J. (2003). Substance Use, Health, and Mental Health: Problems and Service Utilization Among Incarcerated Women. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology,47(2), 224-239. doi:10.1177/0306624X03251120