During the 1950s in the US South white women faced economic, legal, and medical obstacles to their access to reproductive services such as contraceptives and sterilization procedures. During this same time family planning initiatives targeted women of color (particularly Black women) encouraging the use of contraceptives and sterilizations in the interest of reducing the growth of the Black population.
Family planning initiatives were politically espoused by conservatives such as Strom Thurmond, as a racialized form population control in the interest of limiting Black voter strength in the US South. State funding for family planning clinics frequently [received] popular support when associated with women of color, though the same was not true when associated with white women.
Bitter experience has taught the Black woman that the administration of justice in this country is not colorblind. Black women on welfare have been forced to accept sterilization in exchange for a continuation of relief benefits and others have been sterilized without their knowledge or consent. A young pregnant woman recently arrested for civil rights activities in North Carolina was convicted and told that her punishment would be to have a forced abortion. – National Council of Negro Women, editorial, Black Woman’s Voice 2, no. 2 (January/February 1973).
In the US South, throughout the the 1960s and 1970s, federal government funded welfare state programs underwrote the coercive sterilization of thousands of poor Black women. Under threat of termination of welfare benefits or denial of medical care, many Black women “consented” to sterilization procedures. Within southern black communities knowledge of the routine imposition of non-consensual and medically-unnecessary sterilization on black women was well known – a practice so common it came to be known as a “Mississippi appendectomy.”
However, this problem was not confined to the “backward South” in the North, teaching hospitals also performed unnecessary hysterectomies on poor Black women as practice for their medical residents. According to the director of obstetrics and gynecology at a New York municipal hospital, “In most major teaching hospitals in New York City, it is the unwritten policy to do elective hysterectomies on poor Black and Puerto Rican women, with minimal indications, to train residents.”
A front-page article in the Boston Globe from April 1972 reported a compliant filed by a group of medical students that Boston City Hospital was performing excessive and medically unnecessary hysterectomies on Black patients – the complaint included procedures performed for “training purposes,” inaccurate medical records of such procedures, patients who were pressured into signing consent forms without adequate explanation, and other abuses.
Across the country, state legislators proposed a variety of punitive sterilization bills intended to diminish the growing number of Black people receiving public assistance.
In 1973, the case of two young African American girls in Alabama brought increased public awareness to the issue of sterilization abuse against Black women in the South. The Relf sisters, ages 12 and 14, had been declared mentally incompetent by an Alabama physician who subsequently sterilized them using Federal funds to pay for the procedures. Their mother, who could not read or write, had been deceived into signing her “x” on the consent forms. [Relf et al. vs. Weinberger et. al. Civil Action No. 73-1557 U.S. District Court. Washington, D.C. March 15, 1974.] (CCESA 1977)
Public awareness was also generated around the case of a South Carolina physician who publicly defended his professional policy on welfare mothers: he told the local press that it was his policy to require sterilization after delivery of a mother’s third baby in order to reduce the state welfare rolls. Dr. Clovis H. Pierce was the only obstetrician in rural Aiken County, South Carolina who accepted Medicaid patients. When Marietta Williams, a 20-year old black woman on welfare was pregnant with her third child, Dr. Pierce refused to deliver the baby unless Ms. Williams agreed to sign the consent form for sterilization. Dr. Pierce told another patient (Dorothy Waters), “Listen here, young lady, this is my tax money paying for this baby and I’m tired of paying for illegitimate children. If you don’t want this sterilization, find another doctor.”
This doctor subsequently sterilized 28 Black women in a three month time period (CCESA 1977). Between 1971-1972, Dr. Pierce was paid $60,000 of taxpayers’ money in the form of Aiken County Hospital fees billed to Medicare funds. Though several of the women targeted by Dr. Pierce sought government assistance in addressing their cases, the Department of Social Services refused to intervene on their behalf (Roberts 1997:92).
Chicago Committee to End Sterilization Abuse (CCESA). 1977. “Sterilization Abuse: A Task for the Women’s Movement”(January-1977). Available online: <http://www .cwluherstory.org/CWLUArchive/cesa.html> Accessed: November 20, 2007.
Roberts, Dorothy. 1997. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Pantheon Books.
Roberts, Dorothy. 2000. “Black Women and the Pill.” Family Planning Perspectives. Volume 32, Number 2, March/April 2000 <http://www .guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/3209200.html> accessed Nov. 19, 2007.
Ross, Loretta J. 2006. “The Color of Choice: White Supremacy and Reproductive Justice” pp. 53-65 in Color of Violence: the INCITE! Anthology. Boston: South End Press.
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