Our VoiceHealth & Environment

Coerced sterilization in Tennessee builds on long history of eugenics


Lindsay Schubiner • Mar 30, 2015
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The Nashville district attorney has banned staff from making sterilization of women a part of plea deals, according to a March 29 Associated Press report. This comes after the coercive practice occurred at least four times in the past five years.

If there was ever any doubt, these cases demonstrate that this country’s history of racism and eugenics is still alive and kicking.

The Tennessean reported on the most recent example, in which a mentally ill woman was charged with aggravated child neglect after her newborn baby died from causes that could not be determined. The Assistant District Attorney prosecuting the case reportedly refused to consider a plea deal to avoid prison time unless the woman agreed to sterilization in this inherently coercive situation.

As the AP points out, the Tennessee cases are part of a disturbing history:

“Defense attorneys say there have been at least three similar cases in the past five years, suggesting the practice may not be as rare as people think and may happen more often outside the public view and without the blessing of a court. Sterilization coerced by the legal system evokes a dark time in America, when minorities, the poor, and those deemed mentally unfit or ‘deficient’ were forced to undergo medical procedures that prevented them from having children.”

Similarly, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys currently advocates for its members to consider alternatives to prison, which can include long-acting forms of birth control. While less extreme than sterilization, the coerced use of long-acting reversible contraception clearly interferes with a woman’s decisions about her own body and can have serious health consequences.

Read: ‘Rage to Redemption’ tells story of victims of forced sterilization in North Carolina

These reports follow the public exposure last year that dozens of women in California prisons had been sterilized without legal consent, just within the past several years.

If there was ever any doubt, these cases demonstrate that this country’s history of racism and eugenics is still alive and kicking.

Eugenics and the Anti-Immigrant Movement

Today’s anti-immigrant movement has its roots in eugenics programs that were widespread throughout the U.S. during the first half of the 20th century. In fact, John Tanton, the founder of the modern anti-immigrant movement, explicitly saw eugenics and low immigration as two sides of the same “population control” coin. Tanton has stated, “I have come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority and a clear one at that.” To promote his views, Tanton founded the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS).

While FAIR, CIS, and their sister organization, NumbersUSA, hold down the anti-immigrant side of modern population control efforts in the U.S., others work to reduce the fertility of those they consider socially undesirable—people of color, immigrants, poor people, and people living with mental health issues. Both sides have devastating impacts on individuals and entire communities.

Loretta Ross, a reproductive justice pioneer, wrote about her own involuntary sterilization:

“After my sterilization, I felt empty, lost and butchered. I was in shock and felt powerless… [Another] 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… We can name our violations and our violators, and we will hold them accountable.”

If we are to combat eugenics and the anti-immigrant movement, our movements must similarly join together to end racism and eugenics as two sides of the same coin.

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