The US Government’s Unethical Role in the Sterilization of African American Women During the 20th Century

The abuse of sterilization suffered by black women was completely ignored until 1973 when the case of Relf v. Weinberger greeted the court in Alabama. Two black sisters, Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf, aged fourteen and twelve respectively, had sued the government agencies and individuals that sterilized them without their knowledge and consent.

The Role of the US Government in the Forced Sterilization of Black Women in the 60's

The decades between 1907 and 1963 was a stretch of existential horror in the United States for people who were considered poor, mentally ill, disabled or immoral. This group of people were regarded as weak, feeble-minded and unfit for the evolution of the human race. Their existence was perceived as a kind of pollution, and the best way to ensure their weak seeds don’t germinate into mistakes like them was to sterilize them clean of their ability to reproduce.

The set of beliefs that prompted the sterilization movement was called eugenics and was based on the ideas of Sir Francis Galton. Galton was a biological determinist who believed that the quality of the human species can be enhanced through the improvement of the gene. His ideas were adapted from Gregor Mendel’s Laws of genetics which have the general meaning that specific and desired traits can be achieved in species through the engineering of the breeding process of the species.

To improve the quality of the human stock, Galton suggested a cleansing of the human population through his idea of Selective Breeding. Selective breeding suggests that if only the best of humans can be allowed to procreate, then the overall quality and future of the human race shall be made up of a superior stock of humans. Those Galton described as the “well-born.” The motive, he claimed was that man can direct and control his own evolution.

The Role of the US Government in the Forced Sterilization of Black Women in the 60's
Sir Francis Galton was an English Victorian era polymath and a proponent of social Darwinism, eugenics and scientific racism. He was knighted in 1909.

To support his concept of selective breeding, Galton concluded in his study of the British elite, that the social position they occupy and hold can be imputed to their superior genetic composition.

The weaponization of the eugenics idea to subdue particular races considered as inferior, took off from this tangent that suggested the superiority of particular classes and races. The people seen as superior include the Anglo-Saxon, Germanic and Nordic peoples. At the inferior ends were the native Americans, Hispanic Americans and the African Americans.

The growth of the American eugenics movement was swift, particularly because it was an idea well-received and funded by notable organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation, Carnegie Institution, etc.
While the eugenics idea of promoting the quality of the human species seemed grand, what raises concerns was the means through which the propagators of this idea hoped to accomplish it. The first concern were the yardsticks the eugenics employed to determine who was fit or unfit to procreate. It is ridiculous to say that poverty, physical disabilities, promiscuity, criminality, etc. suggest genetic inferiority.

The second concern was that from the layout of the eugenics idea, it was obvious that it could easily be adapted as a weapon for racism in a society as racially fragile as the US. This begs the question, could it be that the group of humans who judged themselves worthy to decide who was feeble-minded, lacked the strength of mind to notice this weakness in their idea? Or was eugenics just a case of an imperfect tool fashioned by imperfect gods for men with a proclivity to abuse and take advantage?

Sterilization of Black Women in the United States

The first ever eugenics organization in America called the American Breeders Association (ABA), saw its expansion in 1906. Part of this expansion was the including of a eugenics committee headed by the biologist, Charles B. Davenport. The ABA enjoyed the funding and membership of the US elites like Alexander Graham Bell. Its mission was to study the human race and emphasize the superiority of some bloods over others perceived as deficient and inferior. However, the layout of this mission presents the ABA as a body that already has made its conclusions about the human race and only needed excuses to justify these conclusions.

In 1911, Davenport formed the Eugenics Records Office (ERO) with funds from the Carnegie Institution and Harriman railroad fortune. Davenport’s ERO trained field workers who visited institutions like orphanages and mental hospitals to determine which individuals were fit or unfit to further the course of the human species.

Forced Sterilization of Black Women in the 60's

Davenport presented Sterilization and Immigration Restrictions as the solutions to the problem of the pollution of the human race by those his ERO saw as unfit. Other eugenicists like Henry H. Goddard, favored Segregation while Madison Grant supported all measures, including the Extermination of the unfit.
Grant’s position, while not different from the positions of his colleagues, only voiced out what has been insinuated all along from the eugenics campaign posters. One of them blatantly read, “some people are born to be a burden on others.”

The Role of the US Government in the Forced Sterilization of Black Women in the 60's

The first compulsory sterilization laws emerged in the late 19th century, with Michigan and Pennsylvania introducing bills in 1897 and 1905, respectively. Indiana became the first state to enact sterilization legislation in 1907. However, it was the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1927 case of Buck v. Bell that legitimized forced sterilization, paving the way for over 64,000 such procedures between 1907 and 1963.

The second half of the 20th century saw an era when compulsory sterilization became a weapon directed on the native American, Hispanic American, and Black women. More than half of the women who lived through this wave of racial extermination through forced sterilization were young African American women, mostly done without their knowledge and consent. In North Carolina alone, 65% of sterilization procedures were conducted on African American women, despite them constituting only 25% of the female population.

The Role of the US Government in the Forced Sterilization of Black Women in the 60's
The Relf Sisters, Minnie Lee (12) and Mary Alice Relf (14) are two African-American sisters who were involuntarily sterilized by tubal ligation by a federally funded family planning clinic in Montgomery, Alabama in 1973.

The abuse of sterilization suffered by black women was completely ignored until 1973 when the case of Relf v. Weinberger greeted the court in Alabama. Two black sisters, Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf, aged fourteen and twelve respectively, had sued the government agencies and individuals that sterilized them without their knowledge and consent.

Subsequent investigations brought to light that the family planning clinic utilized by the Relf sisters had conducted sterilization procedures on a total of 11 female minors, with 10 of them being African Americans. This inquiry revealed further instances of involuntary procedures carried out on minors across the nation. Among 3,260 government-funded birth control clinics, it was discovered that an additional 80 minors had undergone coercive sterilization. The legal proceedings initiated by the Relf sisters would later lead to the prohibition of federal funds for involuntary sterilization, marking a significant step towards rectifying this historical injustice.

Given the apparent shortcomings of the eugenics theory, it not only managed to survive but also flourished. This raises the question: Was the eugenics movement truly focused on improving the human race’s quality, or was it originally conceived as a tool to assert racial superiority over those with the faintest variations in skin color?

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Chiedozie Omeje
Chiedozie Omeje
Chiedozie is a writer and a reader. He is also a firm believer that man's idiocy is the reason he claims he's a higher animal.

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