Learning from the Past to Become Better Reproductive Justice Allies for the Future

SisterSong has provided a voice for reproductive justice for over 20 years. Last October, our Field Team had the opportunity to attend its celebratory conference, Let’s Talk About Sex, and see firsthand the powerful ways in which the collective’s partner organizations strategize and organize to advance reproductive justice (RJ).

Let’s Talk About Sex offered a unique opportunity for our team to learn about the impacts of multiple systems of oppression — including gender, sexual orientation, and social class disparities — on the health and lives of indigenous people and other people of color in the United States. We participated in sessions led by women of color, for women of color. From sex worker justice to abortion access to black liberation to trans rights, the conversations explored how reproductive justice is crucial to all progressive movements.

Most importantly, the SisterSong conference pushed us to reflect as an organization and consider how we can be a better ally to the RJ movement. As we explored the reproductive justice framework with hundreds of advocates, we found a collective strength in our mission to extend voluntary family planning education and services to people around the globe, at countries’ request, through U.S. foreign assistance.

Reproductive justice highlights the ways that healthcare choices look different for different groups of people. Those from marginalized communities often face disproportionately high rates of violence (including state violence) and poverty, and unreliable access to quality education, childcare, healthcare, and stable jobs. Reproductive justice demands that we never make judgements about or seek to influence the reproductive choices of others. Each individual must have the right to make choices that are best for themselves, their families, and their circumstances, and to parent in the way that they choose.

In many ways, the reproductive justice movement is a direct response to a history of the state using the bodies of people of color for its benefit and otherwise controlling their reproductive futures. It stands in stark opposition to the shameful history of forced sterilization policies in the United States and around the world. Federally funded forced sterilization programs took place in 32 states throughout the twentieth century, with the most recent claims of unauthorized sterilization occurring in California from 2005–2013 (see sidebar). These programs oppressed those with “undesirable traits” or deemed unfit to parent: people of color, immigrants, poor people, unmarried mothers, incarcerated people, and people with disabilities.

The eugenics movement, other junk science, and thinly veiled racist fears provided the justification to sterilize over 65,000 people, often without their consent or even their knowledge. These programs were used specifically to curb the populations of communities of color and were an abhorrent violation of reproductive freedom, completely robbing victims of reproductive choice. Today, the voices of the victims are too often sterilized as well, leaving little room for recognition and retribution.

As a population organization, we cannot talk honestly about reproductive justice without first acknowledging the dark history of forced sterilization policies in the United States. As we discuss the impacts of our growing population on the world’s resources, we must be mindful of the association vulnerable communities draw between “population control” and the violation of bodily autonomy. While Population Connection never supported forced sterilization or any other form of involuntary family planning, coercive population control is undoubtedly a ghost that haunts the population movement, even today. We cannot right the wrongs of the past, but we can recognize the pain these unjust policies have caused. We need to listen to and lift up the voices of victims and survivors.

Only with our humble recognition of past injustices can we move forward in the fight to ensure access to reproductive healthcare for everyone, everywhere. Through our grassroots outreach and advocacy work, we continue to promote rights and justice-based approaches to advancing access to voluntarily family planning for women, girls, and all people around the world. As a team, we work to start conversations in communities across the country in an effort to advance global reproductive rights. We seek to make the connections between population growth, the planet’s resources, and human health and wellbeing. Population control has no place in our mission. We do not seek to control anyone — rather, we advocate for each individual to have the resources to make choices that make sense for them.

Throughout the Let’s Talk About Sex conference, a quote by Assata Shakur was referenced many times.

It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.

The scope of our mission is so important — for the people we fight for, and for the sake of the planet. It is our duty to insist on reproductive justice, to remember the wrongs of the past, and to strive to be better. It is our duty to fight, and when the fight is this important, it is our duty to win.

Sterilization Abuses in the United States

The sterilization policies of twentieth-century America were aimed at people who were incarcerated, disabled, or deemed “promiscuous.” Indigenous, Black, and Latinx people were especially vulnerable to state-sanctioned sterilization abuses.

In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Buck v. Bell that a Virginia law mandating the sterilization of the “feebleminded” did not violate the Constitution (a ruling that has never been overturned). In Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s delivery of the opinion of the Court, he wrote, “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Upwards of 65,000 Americans who were judged to have mental illnesses or developmental disabilities were sterilized between the 1920s and the 1970s. Many of them were perfectly healthy and sound of mind. Carrie Buck, the plaintiff in Buck v. Bell, is one such example. Her mother was living in an asylum due to “feeblemindedness,” and Carrie herself had been committed by her foster parents after she had given birth to a daughter — who happened to be the result of a rape by her foster mother’s nephew. All three generations of women were deemed mentally deficient — even Carrie’s baby, who was one year old at the time.

Elaine Riddick was a 14-year-old African American girl living in small-town North Carolina in 1968. She was sterilized without her consent after giving birth to a baby who was conceived through rape by an older man. The state’s Eugenics Board decided that she was “feebleminded” and “promiscuous” and went forward with the operation on a signature (the letter X) from her illiterate grandmother. Riddick didn’t know that she had been sterilized until she was having trouble getting pregnant with her husband, years later. According to state records, between 1964 and 1968, 65 percent of sterilizations were performed on Black women.

In the 1960s and first half of the 1970s, the Indian Health Service (IHS) sterilized at least 25 percent of Native American women ages 15–44, many forcibly, and many more without consent. Special emphasis was placed on sterilizing “full-blooded” Indian women. Women were sterilized after C-sections and during unrelated surgeries, and, once consent forms were required starting in 1973, they were often signed by patients while they were sedated or in severe pain.

Data from a 1965 health survey revealed that over 34 percent of Puerto Rican women ages 20–49 who had ever been married and had at least one child were sterilized (46.7 percent of women ages 35–39). According to Latino(a) Research Review, “By 1980, Puerto Rico had the highest rate of female sterilization in the world.”

The most recent U.S. sterilization scandal was reported by The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2013. Prison records show that between 2005 and 2013, doctors working for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation performed unauthorized tubal ligations on 144 female inmates. California law mandates that inmate sterilizations be approved on a case-by-case basis by a medical committee. None of the 144 procedures were approved, and patient interviews revealed that many were repeatedly pressured to consent, some while in labor or undergoing C-sections.

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Since 1968, Population Connection (formerly Zero Population Growth or ZPG) has been America's voice for population stabilization—we are the largest grassroots population organization in the United States!

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