America’s sordid history of forced sterilization

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Eugenics protest, circa 1971. Credit: Southern Conference Educational Fund/UCLA

On September 14, advocacy groups filed a complaint that accused the Irwin County Detention Center, which houses immigrants for federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), of subjecting some immigrants to unnecessary hysterectomies and denying critical services, such as diabetic care and coronavirus testing.

“I was horrified because, in the back of my mind, I saw all the children in the detention camps (because that’s what I’m calling them on the border),” [Charmaine Fuller] Cooper says. “And I was concerned because, going back into the history, we have petitions for children as young as five years old to be sterilized in North Carolina.”

North Carolina had one of the nation’s longest-running state sterilization programs, which spanned from the 1920s to the 1970s. Threatening residents with the loss of welfare benefits or family separation, local health departments and networks of social workers and clinicians rendered 7,600 residents unable to have children because they were considered “defective, “deviant,” or “feebleminded.”

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They earned those labels for stigmatized health conditions or behaviors: petty theft of bicycles, cognitive disabilities, mundane school troubles, dressing as a different gender, getting pregnant or staying out late as teen, or simply being born into a poor family.

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Narratives that women of color, the poor, the incarcerated, or immigrants are a drain or a danger to society — and their own children — persist. And so too does involuntary or coerced sterilization.

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