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  • Writer's pictureJessalyn

A Response to Forced Sterilizations

Originally written for the Oakland Better Birth Foundation's Better Birth Journal - November 2020 Edition 11/20/2020 Earlier this summer, I was driving north from Oakland, California and found a radio broadcast of the podcast RadioLab G. The 2019 episode was titled “Unfit” and it detailed the horrific United States history of state-sanctioned forced sterilizations under the premise that certain people - namely Black, Brown, immigrant, poor and neurodivergent individuals were “unfit” to parent and a danger to society, their children, or themselves. In 2010 a law student named Mark Bold, now Director of the Christian Law Institute, discovered what appeared to be a current legal loophole for the continuation of this practice for parents of people with disabilities, and when his professors could not give him reassurance that the law was inactive, Bold took upon himself to test the system. As a listener, even though I was familiar with aspects of what writer and medical ethicist Harriet A. Washington named her book Medical Apartheid for - the long and sordid history of experimentation and exploitation on Black and Brown people’s bodies since the colonial era - and what we commonly refer to as eugenics, torture and genocide - I listened in horror as Bold described how in 2012 he pretended to be the father of a teenage daughter, vaguely defined as “handicapped”, and was assured by a West Virginia Circuit Court that he had every right to forcibly sterilize her.

Days after hearing this story, I saw the headlines describing the legacy of such laws play out in the treatment - or rather, abuse and neglect - of some of the most vulnerable - poor immigrants of color awaiting deportation, release or imprisonment . Licensed nurse Dawn Wooten, who had been hired at a privately-run (LaSalle Corrections) ICE center in Georgia, was publicly blowing the whistle on inmate reports of coerced and non-consensual hysterectomies performed on women from Mexico, Cameroon, and other countries being held in Ocilla, Georgia. A medical practitioner whose credentials and history have since been questioned was termed the “uterus collector” after inmates speaking to one another realized that a disproportionate number of his patients - many of whom had needed or sought out less invasive procedures for other issues entirely - either awoke to learn they had been sterilized without prior knowledge or were given inaccurate medical information relaying a false urgency to the procedure. It is no surprise to us at the Oakland Better Birth Foundation that a courageous Black woman increasingly raised complaints - for months - trying to bring attention to this issue as well as the chronic mismanagement of COVID-19 in this facility, and that she was demoted as a result. Women of color have repeatedly stood on the front lines of truth-telling, often to their own detriment, and we thank Ms. Wooten for her perseverance.

Now, reading this you might think - what does Bold’s experiment have to do with racism and these women? Despite the gains we’ve made in recent years to illuminate the narrative around racial health disparities and improved inclusion for differently-abled people in the United States, it’s important that only a few decades ago, and still today under some laws (or lack of laws, depending on which state you live in), the framework (and actual written legislation) for who is “fit” to make decisions about their own bodies, to be treated as a valued member of society, let alone as a parent, blurs the existence of all people who are not white, intellectually typical, male and gainfully employed, and places their very life and livelihood not in their own hands, but into the authoritative judgement of a system that has forever been characterized by white supremacy, classism, and deeply rooted fear and intolerance of difference. This shameful legacy not only excludes those who fall outside of this narrow definition of personhood, but explicitly criminalizes them and treats their very bodily existence as material capital for wealth gains in the name of white hetero-patriarchal dominance.

These are the underpinnings of tribalism, slavery, and toxic patriarchy that fuel today’s inequities and disparities in health, education, and justice. Only a few short decades ago, Black women who spoke up for themselves, Indigenous women who left their white husbands, vocal women, poor people who hadn’t learned to read, people with autism, Asberger’s or Down’s syndrome, and women of color who simply had no powerful allies to protect them, were targeted, institutionalized, villainized and punished for daring to exist in a society that had made no place for them except that of “menace”. We see this in the thirty states with formal eugenics programs until 1970, and in the unwanted, unwarranted sterilizations of Fannie Lou Hamer (1961) and her poor Black peers, termed the “Mississippi appendectomy”. We see it in the unethical contraception trials performed on Puerto Rican woman in the 1950s, and in the 1990s Norplant testing in the Global South as well as its disproportionate promotion in low-income Black-majority school districts in the US.

We stand with the survivors of this abuse in our work as doulas, as midwives, as allies, as advocates, and as parents. We stand with the women of the past and of today who too often are turned away from the care they need and forcibly given a “fix” they never needed, asked for or wanted - because they are not broken. The only way BIPOC lives will effectively thrive in this country is if we collectively, publicly acknowledge, atone and repair the centuries of abuse that lives on today, uplifting solutions created by the very communities most-impacted. Knowledge and resistance to this abuse is carried every day upon the courageous hearts of a community that is determined to exist despite the pathological denial of our humanity. This abuse, in order to be cleansed, must be witnessed as it is, in the hands of the silent, the willfully ignorant, and the cowardly who would dismiss generations of criminal inhumanity as “just politics” to prevent their own disillusionment with a system that promises (yet often fails) to keep them too, safe.

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