8 Shocking Facts About Sterilization in U.S. History


A recent report from the Center for Investigative Studies has shed light on the practice of female sterilization in a California prison during a period of four years (2006-2010). According to pundit Shanzeh Khurram, "at least 148 women at the California Institution for Women in Corona and Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla received tubal ligation, a surgical procedure for permanent sterilization in which a woman's fallopian tubes are closed."

Despite the fact that the practice is illegal, inmates were coerced into these invasive procedures by doctors who failed to explain the medical intricacies of the surgeries they were about to undergo. Although it is acceptable to use state money for this procedure in California, each surgery requires medical oversight by a review committee, something that did not happen during those four years.

The blatant disregard for the reproductive rights of women in order to achieve measures of population control is inherent in the history of female reproductive health in the United States. Though sometimes deemed necessary in order to achieve a desired population balance, the history of this practice in the United States has disproportionately affected women of color and lower class women.

According to a 2011 Ms. magazine article, "U.S. women of color have historically been the victims of forced sterilization. Some women were sterilized during Cesarean sections and never told; others were threatened with termination of welfare benefits or denial of medical care if they didn’t 'consent' to the procedure; others received unnecessary hysterectomies at teaching hospitals as practice for medical residents. In the South it was such a widespread practice that it had a euphemism: a 'Mississippi appendectomy.'"

This report, and the comments that ensued to justify the practice as it applies to low income women, indicate that a deep dehumanization of incarcerated, disenfranchised women continues to occur. Below are some facts about sterilization in the United States, facts that are mired in the history of eugenics and population control practices of the nation. 

1. 1849: First Bill Proposes Sterilization for "Undesirables"

Gordon Lincecum, a famed Texas biologist and physician, proposes a bill mandating the eugenic sterilization of the mentally handicapped and others whose genes he deems "undesirable." The bill is never brought to a vote.

2. 1897-1909: Several U.S. States Approve Forced Sterilizations

Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Washington and California all pass, or attempt to pass, forced sterilization laws that apply to those with mental handicaps.

3. 1927: U.S. Declares Sterilization Of Handicapped Persons Constitutional

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled (8-1) that laws mandating the sterilization of the mentally handicapped do not violate the Constitution in the case Buck v. Bell. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes justified the decision in the following manner:

"It is better for all 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."

4. 1942: Skinner vs. Oklahoma

After the atrocities of the Holocaust, the United States Supreme Court reverses its previous decision with the following words: "[S]trict scrutiny of the classification which a State makes in a sterilization law is essential, lest unwittingly, or otherwise, discriminations are made against groups or types of individuals in violation of the constitutional guaranty of just and equal laws." The Skinner vs. Oklahoma case made it illegal for some lower class felons to be targeted for sterilization.

5. 1965: Sterilization of Puerto Rican Women Reaches 30%

The results of a sterilization campaign in the island of Puerto Rico that began shortly after WWI left 30% of the women there unable to have children by 1965. The earliest governor of Puerto Rico is cited as saying that there were too many unskilled laborers, and not enough jobs in the island. This long sterilization campaign resulted in this practice becoming the birth control of choice for Puerto Rican women, a remarkable feat in a mostly Catholic society where birth control was illegal up to 1930.

6. 1970: Nixon Administration Funds Sterilizations

Through increases in Medicaid-funding and the passage of the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act of 1970, the Nixon administration widely offers sterilization of low-income Americans, primarily women of color. Independent reports would later indicate that many of the doctors performing these procedures do not follow informed consent protocols, deeming the sterilizations "involuntary as a matter of practice."

7. 1973-1976: 3,406 Native American Women Sterilized Without Permission

The U.S government recently admitted to forcing thousands of Native American Indian women to be sterilized. The procedures even included 36 women who were under 21 years old, despite laws prohibiting anyone 21 years and younger from receiving the procedure. Dr. Pinkerton-Uri found that 25% of Native American Indian women had been sterilized without their consent. Pinkerton-Uri also found that the Indian Health Service had “singled out full-blooded Indian women for sterilization procedures.” In total, it is estimated that as many as 25-50% of Native American women were sterilized between 1970 and 1976.

8. 1909-1979: 20,000 Operations Performed in California

In a 70-year period, California performs a third of all government funded sterilizations in the United States. The practice largely targets Latinos and Blacks, and lead to a 1975 class-action lawsuit by working class Mexican women who were coerced into the procedure sometimes minutes after giving birth. California's continued and central role in the sterilization programs of the 20th century is highlighted by Dr. Alexandra Stern in "Sterilized in the name of Public Health: Race, Immigration and Reproductive Control in Modern California" (2005). In the article, Dr. Stern writes that Mexican-Americans and African Americans were disproportionally represented in the percentages of sterilization, and that this was rationalized by concerns about bad parenting, population burdens and even as "a punishment for bearing illegitimate children or as extortion to ensure ongoing receipt of family assistance (in the 1950s and 1960s)."