Candace Gibson, Resident Blogger (’12, University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law)
As many scholars have noted, laws that were passed to involuntarily sterilize those who were poor, those with disabilities, those institutionalized, and those deemed “sexually promiscuous” and others during the beginning of the century also impacted women of color.
In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt began to fear “race suicide” or that “Yankee ‘stock’ …. would be overwhelmed, numerically and hence politically, by immigrants, nonwhites, and the poor.”
Latinas were impacted on the continental United States as well as in Puerto Rico during the first half of the twentieth century. U.S. policy promoted permanent sterilization in Puerto Rico through door to door visits by health workers, financial subsidies, and employers favoring sterilized women in the hiring process.
Things hadn’t changed much by the seventies. In Madrigal v. Quilligan, it came to light that medical practitioners at Los Angeles County Medical Center coerced low-income, immigrant women into sterilization within hours of giving birth. One plaintiff, Maria Hurtado, described her situation: “I was told through a Spanish-speaking nurse, that the state of California did not permit a woman to undergo more than three caesarean section operations, and since this was my third, the doctor would have to do something to prevent me from having another caesarean operation. They did not explain or describe the tubal ligation, and it was later performed on me without my knowledge or consent.” When the case was decided in 1978, the judge ruled that the practitioners had acted in good faith and without intent to harm.
Latinas in California’s mental health facilities were also subjected to sterilization abuse because they were labeled feeble-minded or because their parents could not support them or for other arbitrary reasons. However, these women shared similar characteristics: they were of Mexican origin, they had little access to education, and their families migrated back and forth to the United States. This story of abuse started in 1909 and lasted until 1979.
To this day, advocates are hearing stories of abuse and coercion when women are in the hands of the state for their care.
During this past summer, it was reported that 132 women incarcerated in the California prison system were forcibly sterilized between 2006 to 2010. As you can imagine, many of the women were women of color. In 2010, Latinas and African-American women made up 59% of the California prison system and these numbers are indicative of the national trend of low income women and women of color serving time in prison for non-violent offenses. The providers who sterilized these women assumed that these women were repeat offenders or believed these women should no longer parent because they had multiple children. Many of the women went in for various reproductive health care needs and were misled to believe that sterilization was their only option for treatment. It is disappointing that these women were deemed to have no dignity or autonomy by their providers. It is more distressing that the mainstream reproductive rights movement has forgotten about these women even though correctional institutions are the second largest provider of reproductive health services in this country.
The situation of these women and their families reminds us that we are a long way off from the right to parent and the social supports needed to actualize this right for many persons in this country.