From the Field

Sterilization by any other name: Reproductive oppression persists in prisons

Guest Blogger • Jun 10, 2014

By Loretta Ross

I was sterilized in 1976 when I was 23 years old. My paternalistic doctor visited me the day after la operación and assumed I would be relieved to not have the “burden” of using birth control or worrying about periods.

He was so wrong. I sued him, and the manufacturers of the Dalkon Shield that caused my sterilization. After winning a settlement that opened the door for thousands of women to initiate malpractice lawsuits against this defective intrauterine device (IUD), I naively thought women were at the end of the “bad” days of sterilization atrocities. After all, the first federal guidelines prohibiting sterilization abuse were also implemented in 1976. Not only should these guidelines have ended sterilization abuses, they should have ended the racist, sexist and classist eugenical thinking my doctor shared that underlay such policies.

Unfortunately that is not so, at least in the state of California.

According to the prisoners’ rights advocacy group Justice Now, incarcerated women in California (and possibly other states) are still being sterilized through duplicity and coercion in 2014, nearly four decades after sterilization abuse guidelines were implemented at the state and the federal level. Although numbers are uncertain and most probably under-reported, investigations have revealed that at least 148 female prisoners in two California prisons were sterilized between 2006 and 2010 in a supposedly “voluntary” program as a form of birth control.

But voluntary consent cannot realistically occur in the context of a prison.

Authorities can and have threatened women with loss of health care access, visiting privileges, or access to their children in order to coercively impose sterilization measures, thereby enhancing their prison sentences with reproductive punishments. This is reproductive oppression meeting the prison industrial complex in which prisons, like sterilizations, are used to address perceived social problems.

Legislative action

Justice Now is working to pass a “sunshine” bill in California that will strengthen federal and state bans on sterilizations performed in prisons for the purpose of birth control rather than medical necessity.

Federal law already prohibits any healthcare provider that receives federal grants or contracts from sterilizing people who are incarcerated. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation clearly breaks the law when it sterilizes incarcerated women, but is not held accountable. Corrections officials are falsely claiming that medical emergencies are driving the sterilizations, using false reports of cancer or fibroids. The campaign by Justice Now is aimed at protecting the human rights of incarcerated women and holding state-funded human rights violators accountable.

Forty years ago, while the women’s movement was celebrating the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, thousands of vulnerable women and men were surgically sterilized through state and federal eugenics programs that began in the 1920s. Supporters of the eugenics movement believed they could improve the human race through selective breeding, by encouraging white, middle- and upper-class Protestants to have more children, while imposing measures to keep all others from reproducing. People were targeted because of their race, mental and physical disabilities, class, ethnicity, immigration status, education level, religion or age. Anyone who was freedom impaired – incarcerated – was especially vulnerable to this selective, state-sanctioned reproductive oppression. At the height of the eugenics movement, 32 states enforced compulsory sterilizations through both legal and extralegal means. The United States was the first country in the world to concertedly undertake compulsory sterilization programs for the purpose of eugenics until the Nazis discredited such practices during their genocidal reign of World War II.

Activists – particularly women of color – challenged the ideology and practices of the eugenics movement from the beginning, understanding the importance of reproductive self-determination. In 1973, Latin@, Native American and African American activists formed the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse (CESA), and worked to demand mandatory waiting periods, an end to coercive sterilization procedures during childbirth, informed consent in the languages needed, and effective unbiased counseling for women. In the mid-1970s, welfare recipients were twice as likely as anyone else to be sterilized by state officials. By the end of the 1970s, state health departments were challenged to change their guidelines for surgically sterilizing women and men, leading to a significant reduction in reported cases.

These reproductive abuses were so egregious and widespread that the state of North Carolina – that forcibly sterilized more than 7,600 people it deemed mentally or socially unfit – announced in 2013 that it would spend $10 million beginning in June 2015 to compensate men and women who were sterilized in the state’s eugenics program.

Eugenical past still haunts today

California state officials in charge of prisons seem not to recognize that taking away the right to have children is an immoral act of genocide. Since 1948, widespread or systematic forced sterilization has been recognized as a crime against humanity by human rights bodies around the world. During the height of the eugenics movement, California sterilized more people than any other state by a wide margin, and was responsible for over a third of all sterilization operations in the U.S.

This is an ugly history repeating itself.

Even now, new eugenical rationales are emerging for using coercion to thwart reproductive control by women. Sterilization proponents claim to be concerned about the environment, ending poverty, limiting welfare costs or the threat of crime or terrorism. Frighteningly, some of our problematic feminist allies suggest that we do away with sterilization guidelines altogether because women who want voluntary sterilizations are being inconvenienced by these protective rules. Somehow, it’s not hard to imagine that the majority of these “inconvenienced” women are white, and middle- to upper-class. Not to mention the hordes of misogynist trolls who believe that even more people should be sterilized to fulfill whatever fantasy they have about who should be allowed to reproduce. This proves an alarming enduring historical continuity of prejudices – eugenicists never retreat; they just regroup.

After my sterilization, I felt empty, lost and butchered. I was in shock and felt powerless. In her testimony to the California state legislature organized by Justice Now, one woman survivor said “I was treated like I was less than human.”

Whether incarcerated or not, we are not throwaway people without voice and without rights. Like her, I recovered my dignity and my power by fighting for my human rights in the women’s movement. We are fighting in California and anywhere else against those who believe they can destroy our bodies to solve their problems.

We can name our violations and our violators, and we will hold them accountable.


Loretta Ross is an expert on women’s issues, hate groups, racism and intolerance, human rights, and violence against women. Her work focuses on the intersectionality of social justice issues and how this affects social change and service delivery in all movements. Ross is one of the creators of the term “Reproductive Justice” coined by African American women in 1994 following the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt. She is a nationally-recognized trainer on using the transformative power of Reproductive Justice to build a Human Rights movement that includes everyone.

Request a speaking engagement or follow Loretta on Twitter.


Learn more about how the anti-immigrant movement in the United States is connected to modern-day eugenics and sterilization.

Imagine 2050 Newsletter

  • translate

    English • Afrikaans • العربية • Беларуская • Български • Català • Česky • Cymraeg • Dansk • Deutsch • Eesti • Ελληνικά • Español • فارسی • Français • Gaeilge • Galego • हिन्दी • Hrvatski • Bahasa Indonesia • Íslenska • Italiano • עברית • Latviešu • Lietuvių • 한국어 • Magyar • Македонски • മലയാളം • Malti • Nederlands • 日本語 • Norsk (Bokmål) • Polski • Português • Română • Русский • Slovenčina • Slovenščina • Shqip • Srpski • Suomi • Svenska • Kiswahili • ไทย • Tagalog • Türkçe • Українська • Tiếng Việt • ייִדיש. • 中文 / 漢語