World August 07, 2014

Coercive Sterilization: An On-Going Crime Against Humanity

For eugenic goals and population control, governments continue to coerce the disadvantaged into undergoing temporary and permanent sterilization.

Arina O. Grossu
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Arina O. Grossu
August 07, 2014
© BOUREIMA HAMA / AFP
The inhumane practice of forced or “coercive” sterilization, favored by eugenicists and population controllers, can involve varying degrees of coercion. In the most extreme cases, victims are sterilized without their knowledge or consent. In other circumstances, an invalid “consent” is achieved through pressure and threats to well-being. Coercion can also take place through pressure and inducements to “consent” (without adequate information) to forms of “reversible sterilization,” as long-acting contraceptives are often called.

Forced sterilization has been recognized as a “crime against humanity” by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The practice is closely linked to the eugenics movement, in both the U.S. and abroad. Contrary to what most people think, these phenomena are not mistakes of the past. They are ever-present and growing concerns. While most people are familiar with the ongoing population control measures conducted under the guise of "women's health" and preventing "maternal mortality," little attention is being paid to forced sterilization. Some background and current examples are offered below.

Sterilizations in the United States

In 1927, the Supreme Court ruled in Buck v. Bell that involuntarily sterilizing “feeble minded” inmates with “hereditary” mental illness did not violate constitutional due process or equal protection rights. Around this time, a growing eugenics movement in the United States led to 33 states adopting laws that resulted in more than 60,000 sterilizations. While Bell was never overruled, it has since been cast into serious doubt by later decisions. (In 1942 the Supreme Court held that imposing forced sterilization as punishment for a crime violated the Constitution.) But coercive sterilization on other grounds continued to be legal (and practiced) in a number of states until the 1970s.
In North Carolina, for example, a legal sterilization program was in practice for 43 years, from 1929 to 1974. Members of North Carolina’s health care system, with a nod from the Eugenics Board of North Carolina, sterilized 7,600 minority and poor men, women, and children for the sake of the “public good.” Now North Carolina has set up a $10 million fund to pay the victims of this sterilization program. As of the June 30, 2014 deadline, almost 700 people have applied for compensation; another 1,500 people are still eligible for this victim fund if the state will extend its deadline, as advocates would like to see happen.

Elaine Riddick is one of those people. She is the director of the Rebecca Project and was featured on NBC telling the story of her involuntary sterilization. A columnist from the Virginian-Pilot is calling for a similar fund to be established for Virginia victims of state-sponsored sterilization. He believes that about 8,300 victims could benefit from such a fund.

California was by far the most egregious of the states: one-third of the 60,000 forced sterilizations that occurred prior to 1964 were committed in California.  

To dispel any illusion that this was just a sad chapter in America’s past life, as recently as 2013, there is evidence that those responsible for administering sterilizations in California prisons engaged in widespread fraud and violated laws designed to protect against the involuntary imposition of sterilization procedures. No, that’s not a typo. USA Today reported in June that the California State Auditor uncovered federal and state oversight of sterilization procedures for female prison inmates, finding numerous illegal surgeries in violation of the state’s informed consent law: “Of the 144 inmates who underwent tubal ligations from fiscal years 2005-06 to 2012-13, auditors found nearly one-third were performed without lawful consent.” In some cases, it appears no one in authority ensured that the inmate was mentally fit and even able to give informed consent to the procedure.
The inhumane practice of forced or “coercive” sterilization, favored by eugenicists and population controllers, can involve varying degrees of coercion. In the most extreme cases, victims are sterilized without their knowledge or consent. In other circumstances, an invalid “consent” is achieved through pressure and threats to well-being. Coercion can also take place through pressure and inducements to “consent” (without adequate information) to forms of “reversible sterilization,” as long-acting contraceptives are often called.

Forced sterilization has been recognized as a “crime against humanity” by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The practice is closely linked to the eugenics movement, in both the U.S. and abroad. Contrary to what most people think, these phenomena are not mistakes of the past. They are ever-present and growing concerns. While most people are familiar with the ongoing population control measures conducted under the guise of "women's health" and preventing "maternal mortality," little attention is being paid to forced sterilization. Some background and current examples are offered below.

Sterilizations in the United States

In 1927, the Supreme Court ruled in Buck v. Bell that involuntarily sterilizing “feeble minded” inmates with “hereditary” mental illness did not violate constitutional due process or equal protection rights. Around this time, a growing eugenics movement in the United States led to 33 states adopting laws that resulted in more than 60,000 sterilizations. While Bell was never overruled, it has since been cast into serious doubt by later decisions. (In 1942 the Supreme Court held that imposing forced sterilization as punishment for a crime violated the Constitution.) But coercive sterilization on other grounds continued to be legal (and practiced) in a number of states until the 1970s.
In North Carolina, for example, a legal sterilization program was in practice for 43 years, from 1929 to 1974. Members of North Carolina’s health care system, with a nod from the Eugenics Board of North Carolina, sterilized 7,600 minority and poor men, women, and children for the sake of the “public good.” Now North Carolina has set up a $10 million fund to pay the victims of this sterilization program. As of the June 30, 2014 deadline, almost 700 people have applied for compensation; another 1,500 people are still eligible for this victim fund if the state will extend its deadline, as advocates would like to see happen.

Elaine Riddick is one of those people. She is the director of the Rebecca Project and was featured on NBC telling the story of her involuntary sterilization. A columnist from the Virginian-Pilot is calling for a similar fund to be established for Virginia victims of state-sponsored sterilization. He believes that about 8,300 victims could benefit from such a fund.

California was by far the most egregious of the states: one-third of the 60,000 forced sterilizations that occurred prior to 1964 were committed in California.  

To dispel any illusion that this was just a sad chapter in America’s past life, as recently as 2013, there is evidence that those responsible for administering sterilizations in California prisons engaged in widespread fraud and violated laws designed to protect against the involuntary imposition of sterilization procedures. No, that’s not a typo. USA Today reported in June that the California State Auditor uncovered federal and state oversight of sterilization procedures for female prison inmates, finding numerous illegal surgeries in violation of the state’s informed consent law: “Of the 144 inmates who underwent tubal ligations from fiscal years 2005-06 to 2012-13, auditors found nearly one-third were performed without lawful consent.” In some cases, it appears no one in authority ensured that the inmate was mentally fit and even able to give informed consent to the procedure.


A eugenics effort in the 1990s went even further, targeting girls and women in the general public. Many states and cities in the U.S. provided financial incentives to welfare recipients who agreed to have Norplant, a long-acting contraceptive (with unpleasant and serious side effects) implanted under their skin. Other women, who had used narcotics during pregnancy or who were suspected of child abuse, were offered Norplant in lieu of jail time. A bibliography of legal and medical journal articles about the Norplant coercion can be found here. Targeted recipients were poor, disadvantaged, minority mothers on welfare. In time, the “Norplant option” led to a justified uproar. Norplant has been discontinued in the wake of lawsuits over its misuse and side effects.

More recently, subtler approaches have been used. States may pressure “deadbeat dads” to submit to sterilization to avoid or shorten jail time for their failure to pay child support. In June 2014, county prosecutors in Shenandoah County, Virginia proposed a plea deal to Jessie Lee Herald (who had fathered seven children with six women) conditioned on his getting a vasectomy in exchange for a shorter prison term for having fled the scene of an accident. Mr. Herald accepted the terms.

Sterilizations Abroad

In China, an untold number of couples are forcibly sterilized annually for failing to comply with China’s inhumane one-child policy. This is an extension of the abhorrent practice of coerced and forced abortion on a massive, national scale.

A Harvard fellow in the School of Public Health did a four-country study analyzing forced sterilization in Latin America (El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, and Nicaragua). He found that one quarter of the women reported having been pressured by healthcare providers to undergo sterilization.

Grant money from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has been tied to forced and coercive sterilizations in India, China, Uzbekistan, and Peru among other places. Men and women are often required to be sterilized in exchange for basic needs, such as nutritional supplements for their children or clean water.  

Peru’s sterilization program was described this way:
“With the support of USAID and UNFPA, he [then-President Alberto Fujimori] devised a national plan to sterilize large numbers of Peruvian women. The plan, called the Emergency and Alternative Plan, called for an all-out mobilization of the country’s medical personnel to carry out tubal ligations. Fujimori’s Emergency and Alternative Plan relied upon "sterilization festivals" to round up and sterilize large numbers of women. This plan had USAID’s blessing and support.  In 1997, with support and cooperation from USAID, Fujimori established the Family Planning Policies Coordination National Commission (COORDIPLAN) to fully implement his Emergency Plan. That year alone, almost ninety thousand women were sterilized. Over 300,000 women would be sterilized in all. Ethnic women were routinely called "pigs" or “dogs” in order to intimidate them to undergo sterilization. Bribes, incentives, and threats of withholding basic services were also used. Sometimes women were sterilized by brute force, or without their foreknowledge or consent during delivery. Sterilizations took place in filthy, USAID-funded clinics.”

Coercion can also extend to temporary sterilization. For example the Israeli government, forcibly injected the contraceptive known as DepoProvera into Ethiopian Jewish women who make up a segment of its minority population. An Israeli official finally admitted that the Ethiopian women were being intimidated and threatened into taking the shots and were told that they were vaccines.   

The ability of governments and agencies to control the fertility of the poor and vulnerable appears to be expanding as new technologies make it easier to control women’s bodies.


Sterilization and the Catholic Church

Catholic teaching holds that sterilization, even when it is voluntary, is morally wrong. Forced sterilization is even more so because even the will of the person is betrayed. The Catholic Church has spoken very clearly on the subject of sterilization. In his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI wrote:
"Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary” (14).
 
The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls direct sterilization a “morally unacceptable means” of regulating births:
 
“Legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means (for example, direct sterilization or contraception)” (2399).

In response to questions on direct sterilization by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith replied in March 13, 1975 saying, “…sterilization remains absolutely forbidden according to the doctrine of the Church.”

All of this to say that sterilization in and of itself is an egregious offense against one’s own body according to Catholic teaching, and forced sterilization is an even more egregious offense against someone else’s body and against his or her will.

The human person is a unity of body and soul possessing the inherent dignity of a being created in God’s image and likeness and beloved by God to the point of his dying on the cross for our redemption. We are created male and female precisely so that we can cooperate with God in bringing forth new life and fulfill the deepest meaning of earthly existence, to give and to receive love that is unconditional, sacrificial, permanent and fruitful.

Forced sterilization and its many permutations directly attack human dignity and endanger the well-being of most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in the world.

Arina O. Grossu, M.A. is the director for the Center for Human Dignity at the Family Research Council where she focuses on sanctity of human life issues, ranging from conception to end of life care.
 
 
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