The Muddy Waters of a Right to Life
While the Senate scrambles to confirm Amy Cone y Barrett, women across the country are up in arms, certain their right to retain control over their own bodies will be decimated in the courts in the very near future. A woman’s right to choose whether to have children has a very dark and ominous history in America, and it began long before the landmark decision in Roe v. Wade.
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 women could have chosen to be transferred to other jobs in the factory, however those jobs offered less pay and would take away any options for overtime. 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.
Cherry-picking preferred traits of the human race was 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.
While there were laws preventing the issuance of marriage licenses to anyone thought to be an imbecile, an epileptic or mentally impaired in 1905, the state of Indiana passed the first legislation legalizing sterilization in 1907. The law mandated 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. Following this direction, other states soon joined in 1909 with the addition of sterilization laws in California, Washington State and Connecticut.
The Eugenics Board of the United States encouraged the passing of Law 116 in 1937 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.
Nevada legalized sterilization of men who were convicted of sex crimes; however this could not include castration, and no one was ever actually sterilized under this law. By 1937 every state in the Union will have sterilization laws in effect. It is important to note that the United States led the world in eugenics and forced sterilizations. The Nazis did not issue the Nuremberg Race Laws until 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 beginning in 1965, starting with North Dakota. 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 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.
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, and it is believed there are hundreds more cases dating back to the late 1990s.
With numerous groups working to end a woman’s right to choose when to have children, 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.