fb-pixelAmerica’s shameful history of sterilizing women - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

America’s shameful history of sterilizing women

In the United States, forced sterilization is nothing new.

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe

Earlier this week, a whistle-blower complaint alleged that a gynecologist has been performing hysterectomies at a disturbingly high rate at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Georgia. The allegations have not been substantiated, but the whistle-blower suggested that many of these surgeries may have proceeded without the informed consent of the women receiving them. The complaint has drawn the attention of top congressional lawmakers, 170 of whom have called for an investigation by the Homeland Security inspector general, and renewed calls to abolish ICE. At this point, these are only allegations, and ICE denies them, as does the prison operator.

Regardless of what actually happened at the Georgia detention center, America has a long and shameful history of sterilizing women — and sometimes men — without their consent. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Americans grew infatuated with the American eugenics movement, which sought to “breed” a superior race through government intervention. This led to Buck v. Bell, a 1927 Supreme Court decision that allowed states to sterilize inmates of public institutions who they considered to be “mentally unfit” or genetically inferior without consent. The ruling, which has yet to be formally overturned, allowed for at least 70,000 forced sterilizations in the decades that followed. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who wrote the decision, declared: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”


The American eugenics movement was a white supremacist one — so much so that it inspired Nazis in Germany. “I think the thing most people think about,” when they hear about the allegations of hysterectomies at the ICE detention facility, “is the Holocaust and the sterilization of Jewish prisoners,” said Melissa Murray, a law professor at New York University. “But Nazi Germany actually got its template for eugenics from the United States.”

That Carrie Buck, the woman who was deemed “feebleminded” in the 1927 Supreme Court case, was white does not mean the eugenics movement was not rooted in white supremacy. “Part of the logic of Carrie Buck’s sterilization was that she, as a white woman, was not living up to the expectations of whiteness because she was [perceived to be] ‘mentally unfit,’ ” Murray said. “There’s a strain of racial purity that undergirded Carrie Buck that also I think is present in the policy — if there is a policy — to sterilize [women of color].”


The whole purpose of forcibly sterilizing women was to root out undesirable genes, which were closely associated with Black, indigenous, and Latino communities, as well as people with disabilities, those with mental illness, and the poor. The United States was so methodical in its quest to limit the sizes of certain populations that the highest rate of female sterilization in history happened in Puerto Rico under United States rule. Between 1930 and 1970, roughly one-third of the women on the island were sterilized, and while many women sought sterilization as a form of birth control — sometimes not knowing the procedure was irreversible — many of them died never having known what was done to them.

It wasn’t a coincidence that these women were predominantly brown. “There’s also a history — largely in the South, but not exclusively — of forcing women to become sterilized as a condition of continued receipt of government assistance,” Murray said. Indeed, in the 1970s, Black women in the South were sterilized, often without informed consent, at rates so high that the procedures became known as “Mississippi appendectomies.” In some cases, medical students performed unnecessary hysterectomies on poor Black women for practice.


Native American women have also been subject to mass sterilization. The US government admitted to at least 3,406 nonconsensual sterilizations of native women between 1973 and 1976. But there is evidence to suggest that 25 percent of American Indian women of childbearing age were sterilized in a 6-year period. Marie Sanchez, who was a chief tribal judge on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in 1977, told the United Nations that this was genocide in “modern form.”

As recently as 2010, incarcerated women in California were sterilized without their consent, and in 2017, a Tennessee judge issued an order that offered to reduce sentences for incarcerated people by 30 days if they agreed to be sterilized. There is, of course, a racial component to the judge’s order: While the Black population in Tennessee is about 17 percent, Black people make up 44 percent of prisoners in the state. In essence, the rationale behind the judge’s order can be understood by those affected as, “We don’t want more of you here.”

The US government, like many around the world, insists on regulating women’s bodies. In doing so, it tramples on their rights, freedom, and equal treatment under the law. If it turns out the whistle-blower’s allegations about the ICE detention facility are true, it would unfortunately not be new; it would be just another manifestation of an unequal society that too often disdains the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.


Abdallah Fayyad is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at abdallah.fayyad@globe.com. Follow him @abdallah_fayyad.