It Was Never About Life
An unprecedented leak from the United States Supreme Court has women across the country panicking, certain their right to retain control over their own bodies will be decimated in the very near future. A woman’s right to decide whether to bear children has a very dark and ominous history in America, and it began long before the infamous landmark decision in Roe v. Wade.
While criminalizing abortion across the country, government contradictions ran as rampant as they do today. In 1847 doctors came together and created the American Medical Association, which became the male-dominated authority on all medical practices. Phasing out the services of midwives and nurses was only the beginning in a long tradition of making decisions for women about their own healthcare.
This group of men believed they should have the power to decide when an abortion was necessary and forged ahead with a campaign to criminalize abortion that would last until the 1973 Roe v Wade decision was handed down.
Working to prohibit and outlaw abortion, the country simultaneously executed other ways in which to prevent a woman from making her own decisions when it came to reproduction. Certain only they could define ‘life’ and ‘liberty’, it was imperative men keep control over procreation.
Laws preventing the issuance of marriage licenses to anyone thought to be an imbecile, an epileptic or mentally impaired were implemented in 1905. The state of Indiana passed the first legislation legalizing sterilization in 1907, mandating the sterilization of all criminals, idiots, rapists and imbeciles in custody of the state institutions. Until its complete repeal in 1974 over 2500 individuals had been involuntarily sterilized, with 52% being women.
Other states soon joined and in 1909 the addition of sterilization laws in California, Washington State and Connecticut were executed. While the implementation of forced sterilization was gaining ground, the push to criminalize abortion sent the practice underground. Resulting in the death of nearly 2,700 women in 1930 alone.
The ongoing death toll from back-alley abortions motivated Planned Parenthood to create the first of its kind conference on abortion, in 1955. Although conference attendees overwhelming called for abortion laws to be rewritten to preserve the lives of woman, not much changed.
Even though the introduction of Thalidomide in the 1950’s — 1960’s, to pregnant women resulted in severe birth defects, a woman still could not get a legal abortion in the United States.
In 1966 nine physicians were sued for performing abortions on women who had been exposed to Rubella, a disease known to cause devastating birth defects. The formation of NARAL ( National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws) in 1969, spearheaded a nationwide effort to legalize abortion and repeal abortion ban laws.
This campaign led to the complete repeal of abortion bans in four states and abortion laws being rewritten in 13 more. Keeping in step with preferred attributes, these amendments would allow for abortion in specific cases, including risk to the woman, rape, incest, and what was deemed fetal abnormalities.
Cherry-picking preferred traits of the human race had been common practice long before Adolf Hitler rose to power. In 1882 the United States passed immigration laws to prevent the entry of ‘undesirables.’ In 1883, Francis Galton coined the term ‘eugenics’ as a way to control, repair and improve the human race. In 1892, Dr. Isaac Kerlin brought forth his ideology insisting sterilization as a cure for idiotic conditions.
The American Breeder’s Association created a committee on eugenics in 1906. Do not let the name fool you; this had nothing to do with animals. The committee’s purpose was to examine the use of selective breeding to minimize what it deemed as inferior humans.
Though the policy makers demand that women give birth contradicted its long desire for the perfect race, The Eugenics Board of the United States encouraged the passing of Law 116 in 1937. The law was written to encourage the institutionalization of population control in Puerto Rico. This U.S policy promoted the permanent sterilization of women, in lieu of providing access to safe, legal and reversible contraception. After all, forcing one to give birth doesn’t equate caring about and for a human with an undesirable ethnicity.
By 1937 every state in the Union had sterilization laws in effect. It’s important to note that the United States led the world in forced sterilizations, prior to the Nazi’s issuing the Nuremberg Race Laws in 1935. All in all, over 30,000 people were forcibly sterilized in the United States between 1907 and 1939.
Fast forwarding through the tragic and shameful history of eugenics in the United States, you will find that some states began repealing their laws in 1965, starting with North Dakota. With 1,049 individuals sterilized, 62% of them women, ranked North Dakota 12th overall in sterilization.
North Carolina’s Eugenics Board reviewed petitions from both government and private agencies seeking approval to sterilize poor, unwed and/or mentally disabled women, children and men. This led to over 7,600 individuals sterilized between 1930–1970. In 2011, North Carolina formed the Office of Justice for Sterilization Abuse to assist in the identification of victims. It was discovered that 65% of them were black women, even though only 25% of the state’s female population was black.
The United States instituted sterilization in Puerto Rico, citing overpopulation as the cause of poverty. Targeting poor women, 37% of the island’s childbearing population had been sterilized by 1976. Much of this movement was instigated and encouraged by Clarence Gamble, the president of the Pennsylvania Birth Control Federation, who maintained that a reduction in the birth rate of African Americans was the solution to poverty. Moreover, the phrase ‘Mississippi Appendectomy’ was coined due to the prevalence of forced or coerced sterilization among the Black population in the south.
Not surprisingly, Native American women were also extensively sterilized throughout the 20th Century. The Indian Health Services began providing what it called ‘family planning services’ in 1965. Under the control of the U.S Public Health Services, over 3,400 Native Americans were sterilized between 1973 and 1976 alone.
Just as a woman’s right to decide when to start a family, has never been hers, outlawing abortion has never been about the sanctity of life. The government, aka large group of white men, have worked tirelessly long before this countries inception to limit power among women and minorities.
Though losing the abortion ban battle in 1973, the legalization of sterilization practices continued well into 2010. In 1978, the ACLU took a case on behalf of 5 women against American Cyanamide for pressuring them to undergo sterilization in order to keep their jobs. The company claimed it had introduced new policy that would shift female workers from certain areas of the lead pigment factory, to protect the unborn. None of these women were pregnant at the time.
The case highlighted evidence that lead exposure of men could also harm a fetus, yet men were not being excluded from any jobs. Joan Bertin, the attorney with the women’s project at the ACLU, insisted the idea of protecting women against their will wasn’t new, and it should never come at the cost of equality.
Insisting undesirable effects on the unborn trumped a woman’s right to choose an occupation, was not reserved for American Cyanamide alone. Du Pont chemical transferred all of its female employees out of areas working with Teflon in 1981, due to a 3M rat study showing chemical C8 used in Teflon production caused significant eye defects in a pregnant rat study and didn’t disclose to the women their reasoning.
As much as we would like to believe that this type of barbaric policy is a practice in our country’s distance past, it is not. Between the years of 2006 and 2010, 148 female inmates in two of California’s prisons were sterilized. Women with multiple children were particularly pressured to comply.
While the anti-abortion crowd would like us to believe all existing and ‘potential’ life is sacred, they continue to refuse healthcare for all, feeding the poor, and supporting fair, inclusive public education. Their love of ‘life’ quickly creeps back into the shadows the moment LGBTQ+ and minorities demand the same rights they have been freely given their entire lives.
While the calculating troglodytes of our government work to legislate their definition of morality, you can be certain they will continue to find other ways to keep women in check and white men in power.
From privacy to voting rights, the teaching of history to the banning of books, we must ask ourselves what ‘choice’ really means.
A government dripping in repudiation of its own history certainly should not control any individual’s reproductive freedom or right to sovereign autonomy.