If we’re going to talk about voluntary sterilization—or even the simple act of opting to have few or no children—we’ve got to get everyone on the same historical page. While I tend to take for granted that people understand the history of forced sterilization in the U.S., as well as countries such as China that mandate single-child families as part of population control, it may not be a given that everyone understands the connections between modern eugenics, race/class/ability privilege, reproductive justice, and the struggle for voluntary sterilization. Much as I know loads of folks use it as a jumping off point, skimming the Wikipedia entries for compulsory sterilization and eugenics in the United States only gets you so far. Please keep in mind, however, that I’m neither a historian nor a legal scholar.
Not wanting to have children and seeking to medically opt out can be a decision fraught with complications, if for no other reason than the complex history associated with forced sterilization of women of color, native and indigenous women, low-income women, people with disabilities, LGBTQ/GNC folks, immigrants, and seemingly anyone who might be randomly determined to be deviant or some sort of societal burden. Compulsory sterilization hasn’t been only carried as a form of eugenics, either. It’s long been a punitive “solution,” a way to punish criminals, though that distinction tends to overlap with the type of people persecuted as so-called criminals in the first place.
The poster, roughly translated from German, reads “popular breeds = customer.”
This wasn’t just a WWII Nazi-era phenomenon. The United States was the first country to use compulsory sterilization for eugenics purposes, and well into the mid-twentieth century, laws remained on the books in several dozen states that allowed for the forced sterilization of select groups of people, notably people with mental illness. It took until the Supreme Court case, Skinner v. Oklahoma in 1942, before it was deemed illegal to sterilize a person as punishment for a crime. Even after WWII helped shift stateside public opinion and after the official end of the U.S. eugenics movement, there have been reports of cases of coerced sterilization, and even sterilization campaigns enacted against women without any consent whatsoever.
It doesn’t take long to realize that today, the seemingly simple solution of permanent birth control is anything but. These (somewhat campy) films, made with public domain footage, explore how women have long made reproductive choices based on coercion, fear, poverty, and lack of social support.
Today, some woman can be voluntarily sterilized; I’m one of them. But in order to begin talking about why voluntary sterilization should be part of the larger conversation about privilege, gender, and reproductive justice, we all need to situate ourselves in history, think over where we’ve been and where we hope to be someday.
The question is—or rather, the questions are—how can we make voluntary sterilization part of our discussion about reproductive justice while honoring the despicable history of forced sterilization? How can we advocate for women’s reproductive freedoms while being respectful of the ways women’s bodies have been used and violated in the past? How can we support women’s rights to choose parenthood and equally support women who wish to opt out in whatever way they see fit?
Women, Race and Class by Angela Y. Davis
Photo via Joelk75 on Flickr