Legally sterilizing the vulnerable

July 11, 2013

IN THE article titled, "21st century sterilization abuse," Nicole Colson points out that the U.S. has a long and horrific history of sterilizing women against their will if they are deemed "unfit" for procreation by private and public officials. This has included women of color, women on welfare or government assistance, and women with disabilities, among others.

In fact, involuntary sterilization is technically still legal in the U.S. And according to data collected by the National Council on Disability (NCD), an independent federal agency, its use in recent years appears to be on the increase across the country.

Not only has the 1927 Supreme Court case, Buck v. Bell, which legalized involuntary sterilization, yet to be overturned, but as recently as 2001, a federal appeals court stated that "involuntary sterilization is not always unconstitutional if it is a narrowly tailored means to achieve a compelling government interest."

And while it has been illegal for the federal government to provide funds for involuntary sterilization since 1974, it is completely legal for individual states to engage in the practice. Presently, there are 14 states in the U.S. that allow for the involuntary sterilization of people with mental or developmental disabilities. An additional eight states allow for less-than-voluntary sterilization.

In a recent report released by the NCD, under the subheading, "Parenting with a Disability Today: The Eugenics Movement's Backdoor?", a particularly disturbing case is recounted where the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health in 2011 sought a court order to force a pregnant woman with a psychiatric disability to undergo an abortion and subsequent sterilization against her will.

The judge in the case ruled in favor of the state, even if it meant that the woman had to be "coaxed, bribed, or even ruse" into entering the hospital where she would then be sedated and the procedures would be performed upon her.

Fortunately, this particular ruling was later reversed on appeal, but as the NCD report concludes, "The appropriate result of the proceedings does not erase its troubling genesis--a state agency that intervened to terminate a pregnancy on the basis of the disability of the pregnant woman, despite her objection to having an abortion."

Moreover, even where involuntary sterilizations are prohibited by law, poor women and disabled women are still frequently pressured by welfare officials or medical professionals into undergoing sterilization, often as a condition of keeping their benefits or keeping their current children.

To once more quote the aforementioned NCD report: "Unquestionably, the power of eugenics ideology persists. Today, women with disabilities contend with coercive tactics designed to encourage sterilization or abortions because they are deemed not fit for motherhood."

For disabled women in the U.S., involuntary sterilization is closely connected to a broad range of issues related to reproductive and sexual autonomy. For instance, a majority of states currently have laws which list "disability" as grounds for termination of parental rights. A majority of states also have laws restricting the right of people with disabilities to get married.

Owing to bigoted prejudices regarding disability and sexual activity within the medical profession, studies also reveal that women with disabilities are far less likely than nondisabled women to receive adequate sexual health care when visiting a doctor. This includes not being offered regular pap tests, gynecological exams, screenings for sexually-transmitted diseases, fertility treatments, or family planning consults.

In the wake of the recent revelations surrounding the practice of mass sterilization in California prisons, hopefully the public's attention can be further drawn to the fact that such infringements on the reproductive autonomy of women--especially disabled women, women in prison, poor women, and women of color--is not, unfortunately, an isolated occurrence, but rather a commonplace form of social oppression in the U.S. today.
Keith Rosenthal, Boston

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