Forced Sterilizations, Past and Present

Eugenic Mentality Lives On

SACRAMENTO, California, MARCH 22, 2003 ( Public authorities in several American states have apologized for the forced sterilization programs that left thousands unable to have children. In the decades following World War I, many states imposed sterilization on people they considered to be unfit to reproduce.

Last week Governor Gray Davis of California made a public apology, the Los Angeles Times reported March 12. “It was a sad and regrettable chapter … one that must never be repeated,” Davis said in a statement.

According to the newspaper, California and 31 other states at various times between 1909 and 1964 sterilized up to about 60,000 people. At a California Senate hearing on eugenics, Paul Lombardo said the programs were intended to “clean up the gene pool.”

The governor’s apology did not go so far as to propose reparations or other compensation to the victims or their families. Lombardo said it would be difficult for survivors to collect damages in a lawsuit against the government because the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld the constitutionality of forced sterilization in 1927.

In late 2002, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber also apologized for the forcible sterilizations, Reuters reported Dec. 2. More than 2,600 people were affected in the state. With Kitzhaber’s apology, Oregon became the second state to formally admit it made a mistake. Virginia apologized last May.

For six decades, starting in 1923, Oregon’s Board of Eugenics oversaw castrations, tubal ligations and hysterectomies of patients at state institutions. Some patients were denied release until they agreed to be sterilized.

Days after the Oregon apology, North Carolina Governor Mike Easley also made a public apology for his state’s role in sterilizing more than 7,600 people in a program that lasted until 1974. According to the Winston-Salem Journal on Dec. 13, children as young as 10 were sterilized under the state program, which was often characterized by coercion and flawed intelligence- testing. On Feb. 11 the newspaper reported that Easley appointed a committee to consider reparations for the victims.

A few days later, on Feb. 16, the Journal reported on the contents of more than 1,400 documents released to the newspaper. The documents told of the demise of the Eugenics Board of North Carolina, which had ordered the sterilizations.

The board met monthly in Raleigh, the capital, to consider petitions for sterilizations from social workers statewide, rapidly reading case-descriptions and usually voting to sterilize. Board members spent little time considering the merits of individual cases. “The members are all busy with their own work,” Ellen Winston, a board chairwoman, wrote in a 1955 memo. “They, therefore, have little opportunity to give thought to their responsibility to this other important program.”

Still a threat

Forced sterilizations are not a thing of the past. The London Times on Feb. 26 reported on the plight of Gypsy women in eastern Slovakia. One of them, Zita, was given a paper to sign just after she had given birth to her second daughter in 1998. She is illiterate and nobody explained the paper’s contents to her. Later, she was told that she had given her consent to being sterilized.

According to the Times, forced sterilization of Gypsies in Slovakia was official policy under the Communists and dates from the Nazi era. Even now, the Gypsy women’s hospital files are stamped to identify their race.

Slovakia’s Interior Ministry announced that it will send a special team of investigators to look into the sterilization claims, the New York Times reported March 6. According to the New York paper, reports by two non-governmental organizations allege that at least 110 Gypsy women have been sterilized without their consent since the fall of Communism in 1989. Local doctors and regional officials deny the accusations.

Gypsies make up an estimated 10% of Slovakia’s 5.4 million people, and the matter could complicate the final talks on Slovakia’s entrance into the European Union next year.

In the United States, past errors have not stopped a group from promoting sterilization of drug addicts and alcoholics. The Washington Times reported Jan. 8 on the organization Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity (CRACK), which is paying people $200 in exchange for sterilization or long-term birth control.

CRACK reasons that it is better for a child not to be born than to suffer the physical and psychological damage inherited from addicted parents. Barbara Harris, who founded the group in 1997, denies she is a racist. In fact, she claims that more white women than black have availed themselves of the group’s services.

But Lynn Paltrow, executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, accuses Harris of racial targeting. “Nearly half the women she has paid are African-Americans,” said Paltrow.

CRACK, which started in Orange County, California, recently opened an office in the New York borough of Brooklyn.

According to the New York Times on Jan. 6, Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center in Brooklyn has plans to refer patients recovering in the psychiatric emergency room to CRACK. And the director of chemical dependency services at Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn said he was reviewing the program.

But Dr. Van Dunn, the chief medical officer of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, which oversees facilities in all five boroughs, said no hospital in his organization would have anything to do with CRACK.

The group started in 1997, and so far 833 women and 21 men nationwide have accepted the $200 offer. Of these, 369 have been sterilized and the rest have gone on long-term birth control, according to Harris.

Certified to marry

In China, some couples are obliged to use long-term contraception for eugenic purposes. Before being able to marry, prospective couples must undergo a series of medical tests. The tests involve inquiries about hereditary illness, learning disorders and psychiatric problems, according to a report published Feb. 1 by the British Medical Journal. There is also a physical examination, including laboratory tests.

Couples who meet the grade receive a certificate of health for marriage. In other cases, about 1% to 10% of people in the 10 hospitals visited by the author of the article, marriage must be postponed pending some form of treatment or counseling.

A smaller number of couples must agree to permanent contraception in order to receive the marriage certificate. This restriction generally applies to people with severe psychiatric disease or low intelligence, the British Medical Journal said. “China unashamedly espouses the need to improve the quality of the population,” the article observed.

When sterilization and contraceptives fail, abortion is sometimes used to eliminate “defective” babies. The London Sunday Times reported Oct. 27 on a case where a doctor performed an abortion on a woman six months pregnant who decided she didn’t want a baby with a harelip.

Staff at the Cleft Lip and Palate Association, which provides advice and support for families seeking surgery for their babies, declared surprise at the abortion. “It is usually totally correctable, and is done in very young babies,” said a spokeswoman. Future generations will also have some apologizing to do — for the evils of today’s eugenicists.

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