Episode 29. Undesirable: The History of Forced Sterilization in the U.S.

Tying tubes, nonconsensual hysterectomies, withholding medical care without contraception use…these are just a few ways that forced sterilization has occurred in the United States. The history of forced sterilization is sewn into the fabric of US history, and has played an insidious role in this country. This episode, we learn about the eugenics movement, its impact on communities of color and how these issues continue to manifest today. Then join us in our Feminist Corner as we discuss forced sterilization in the context of abortion bans and how healthcare providers play a key role in protecting patients from experiencing this blatant violation of human and reproductive rights.

Feminist Corner:

What roles do healthcare providers have when it comes to contraception options and the ethics around them? 

The decision in Texas around their recent refusal by the Supreme Court to block the state’s ban on most abortions is devastating for reproductive rights, how can this abortion ban and forced sterilization even exist together and what factors contribute to them (similarities and difference)? What have we failed to take away from history to allow them to be practiced?

Listen to the episode, discuss these questions with friends and family, let us know what you think!

Show Notes:

What is sterilization? 

  • The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists also known as ACOG, defines sterilization as “a permanent method of birth control”
  • For folx with testes: the vasectomy. This entails the tubes that get sperm from the testes into semen getting tied, cut and clipped or sealed to keep sperm from getting into semen. 
  • For folx with uteruses: Tubal ligation, aka “getting your tubes tied” where the fallopian tubes which are the tubes that connect the ovaries and eggs in them to the uterus, get closed off or “tied.” Also hysterectomies, or the removal of the entire uterus and continuous use of long acting reversible contraceptives are an option for sterilization as well. 

What is forced sterilization? What is coerced sterilization?

  • Forced sterilization is when a person is sterilized without their knowledge or is not given an opportunity to provide consent to be sterilized. Coerced sterilization is when financial or other incentives, misinformation or intimidation tactics are used to compel an individual to undergo the procedure. 

The History

  • A key point: the ties between racial and socioeconomic status and forced sterilization in the US are CLEAR. It’s not the rich, white women that this happens to, but the poor, Black, Latina, indigenous women, and other women of color. It’s the women with disabilities and the women who are viewed as criminals who are thought to “deserve it.”
  • The eugenics movement came about in the late 1800s, early 1900s. It was a byproduct of white supremacy and was embraced by scientists, social activists, and politicians to get rid of the “undesirable” characteristics in society.
  • Many important figures including Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Carnegie and the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, were all strong supporters of eugenics.
  • The ability to sterilize people was granted by the Supreme Court in 1927 with the Buck v. Bell case which declared a forced sterilization law in Virginia constitutional, and this state-sanctioned sterilization of the “feeble-minded” was allowed and it set a precedent for the legality of sterilization in the US throughout the twentieth century.
  • In the 1960s and 70s, the Indian Health Service conducted thousands of forced sterilizations on Native American women. They would go into Native communities with providers that believed historical assumptions about indigenous peoples like that they were morally, mentally and socially defective.
  • In Alabama in the 1960s, voluntary sterilization for adults and court-approved sterilization for the mentally incompetent was allowed. They also permitted children’s surgery with parental approval which led to a lawsuit and through this, it was  found that between 100,000 and 150,000 poor people were sterilized annually under federally-funded programs, and others were coerced into consenting to sterilization because doctors were threatening to end their welfare benefits.
  • In the 70s, so many African American women were sterilized, without any medical reason and often with no informed consent. There were so many women getting sterilized that the procedure started being called Mississippi appendectomies.
  • In Puerto Rico, a survey in 1965 of residents there found that ⅓ of all Puerto Rican mothers between 20 and 49 were sterilized. The procedure was simply known as “la operacion” and many of the women that received it even died not knowing what was done to them. 
  • In the supreme court case Madrigal v. Quilligan, the LA county/USC medical center in the early 70s was found to have personnel systematically coercing Mexican American women into agreeing to sterilization.

Forced Sterilization Today

  • In CA in the mid-1990s, a state law called the “Maximum Family Grant Rule” was passed which discouraged mothers from having more children by barring all low-income families enrolled in welfare from receiving increased assistance to care for additional children.
  • Another similar example was in 2017 in TN, where a judge signed an order that would decrease jail time for inmates who got either a vasectomy or a LARC. These are all just straight up coercion tactics. 
  • The really only kind of reparations for people who suffered from forced sterilization was the Eugenics Compensation Act passed in December 2015 where the US Senate voted unanimously to help surviving victims of forced sterilization. 
  • Just last year, at the Irwin County ICE Detention Center in GA, it was found that officials who worked there would send immigrant women to a physician who would sterilize the women without informed consent.



Admin, M. (2019, December 12). Tennessee County Coercive Sterilization Program Recalls Racial Eugenics Policies of the Past. Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://eji.org/news/tennessee-county-sterilization-program-recalls-past-racial-eugenics-programs/

Allen, S. (2019, March 22). It’s Not Just Japan. Many U.S. States Require Transgender People Get Sterilized. Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://www.thedailybeast.com/its-not-just-japan-many-us-states-require-transgender-people-get-sterilized

American Civil Liberties Union. (n.d.). ACLU News & Commentary. Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://www.aclu.org/news/immigrants-rights/immigration-detention-and-coerced-sterilization-history-tragically-repeats-itself/

America’s shameful history of sterilizing women. (2020, September 18). Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/09/17/opinion/americas-shameful-ongoing-history-sterilizing-women/

Blakemore, E. (2019, August 15). The Little-Known History of the Forced Sterilization of Native American Women. Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://daily.jstor.org/the-little-known-history-of-the-forced-sterilization-of-native-american-women/

Forced sterilization policies in the US targeted minorities and those with disabilities – and lasted into the 21st century. (n.d.). Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://ihpi.umich.edu/news/forced-sterilization-policies-us-targeted-minorities-and-those-disabilities-and-lasted-21st

The History of Forced Sterilization in the United States. (2020, September 21). Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/book-excerpts/health-article/forced-sterilization/

Ko, L. (2020, November 19). Unwanted Sterilization and Eugenics Programs in the United States | No Más Bebés | Independent Lens | PBS. Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/blog/unwanted-sterilization-and-eugenics-programs-in-the-united-states/

Kugler, S. (2020, September 25). Day 17: Mississippi appendectomies and reproductive justice. Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/day-17-mississippi-appendectomies-msna293361

Manjeshwar, S. (2020, November 4). America’s Forgotten History of Forced Sterilization. Retrieved September 14, 2021, from https://bpr.berkeley.edu/2020/11/04/americas-forgotten-history-of-forced-sterilization/

Ortiz, E. (2021, September 6). How Texas abortion law is undermining Native American women’s reproductive justice. Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://www.nbcnews.com/health/womens-health/how-texas-abortion-law-undermining-native-american-women-s-reproductive-n1278494

Sterilization for Women and Men. (n.d.). Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/sterilization-for-women-and-men#:%7E:text=There%20are%20two%20ways%20that,tubes%20can%20be%20removed%20completely.

Sterilization of Women: Ethical Issues and Considerations. (n.d.). Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://www.acog.org/clinical/clinical-guidance/committee-opinion/articles/2017/04/sterilization-of-women-ethical-issues-and-considerations

Vargas, T. (2017, May 9). Guinea pigs or pioneers? How Puerto Rican women were used to test the birth control pill. Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/05/09/guinea-pigs-or-pioneers-how-puerto-rican-women-were-used-to-test-the-birth-control-pill/

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