In the three year period from 1973 to 1976, 3,406 American Indian women were surgically sterilized (Staats 1976). Hysterectomies have occurred as young as eleven-years-old for American Indian girls (Carpio 2004). These non-consenting sterilizations of marginalized groups such as American Indian, African American, Mexican, and Puerto Rican women in America have been happening for years, but became well known in the late 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s (Volscho 2010). Surgical sterilization, also known as tubal ligation, is when the fallopian tubes are cut, tied, or blocked in some way to permanently prevent pregnancy (Mayo Clinic 2018). For minority groups, especially African American and American Indian women, this is thought to occur through coercion (Shreffler et al. 2015). This pressured surgical sterilization of marginalized women originates from several corrupt ideologies such as racism, imperialism, capitalism, and patriarchy.
Racism in the Americas (specifically North America) stems from the colonization of the Americas by the Europeans who utilized African people as slaves and forced American Indians out of their land and homes so they could colonize and develop the land of America for themselves (Volscho 2010). African women, when forced into slavery, were also forced to “breed” to produce children who the Europeans could utilize as slaves in the future. The control that slave owners had over the reproduction of African women later led to the mentality that people had when forcing sterilization on African American women (Volscho 2010). There is also speculation that sterilization of African American women originates from images in the media, specifically the Jezebel image of women during slavery (Volscho 2010). This image of promiscuity links to the belief in sterilizers that these women are objects, not people, who need to be controlled. The sterilization of American Indian women stems from the American image of the women in media as Squaw, which is a derogative term insinuating “dirty, subservient, abused, alcoholic, and ugly” (Volscho 2010) women in need of sterilization so not to further contaminate the population in America. This image may have also developed from the Europeans belief that Native Americans were savages in need of taming and segregation from the civilized population. While racism is the main reason that marginalized women are sterilized, several of the aforementioned ideologies also play a role in the twisted reasons why women are coerced into sterilization. Capitalism, industrialization, and patriarchy has increased the interest in prevention of the “lower-class,” or the marginalized groups, from having children (Carpio 2004). Once again colonialism by Europeans of American Indians and enslavement of African people has a correlation with this need for control of American Indian and African American women’s fertility. Therefore, as a result of the colonization of the Americas and the enslavement and segregation of both African and American Indian people, the surgical sterilization of women has become a silent scourge on women of color.
As a result of many of the women being coerced into this permanent surgery, Dr. Connie Uri fought to protest the duress that American Indian women were under when pressured to undergo the sterilization. Dr. Uri brought a case to the attention of the 1976 General Accounting Office (GAO) and Senator James Abourezk of South Dakota where an American Indian woman, at the time 26-years-old and an alcoholic, was given a hysterectomy and sterilized, while the doctor told her she could get a womb transplant when she was ready to have children (Carpio 2004). The GAO reported that there was “no evidence of IHS [Indian Health Services] sterilizing Indians without a patient consent form on file” (Carpio 2004). Carpio points out that a consent form alone is not an adequate way to investigate this allegation; this investigation ignored the possibility of abuse or coercion of women into having this sterilization process (2004). The investigation only looked at documents and did not talk to staff or any of the sterilized women, so this investigation was most likely biased (Carpio 2004). Dr. Uri actually said in a radio interview that many women were medicated when given consent forms, many didn’t know that tubal ligation was irreversible, and many were afraid to argue with the doctor and were not advised on other birth control methods (KPFK 1974). Dr. Uri therefore organized a protest outside the hospital with the nurses, which eventually helped lead to more stringent laws regarding tubal ligation surgeries (KPFK 1974).
In conclusion, racism, which stemmed from the colonization of the Americas and enslavement of African and American Indian people, led to the reproductive surgical sterilization of marginalized women. Dr. Connie Uri helped to fight against this injustice by protesting the coercion of patient consent forms to perform this surgery. Ultimately, though sterilization of marginalized women still occurs (Reuters 2013), through the activism of Dr. Uri and the nurses of that hospital, there are more resources to help prevent coerced surgical sterilization from happening.
Carpio, M. (2004). The Lost Generation: American Indian Women and Sterilization Abuse. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/29768273.pdf?refreqid=excelsior:80c6f1b81cd21325444eeb758113dd4eb
Indians and medicine : Sterilization and genocide / Dr. Connie Uri ; interviewed by Jim Berland. (1974, September 25). Los Angeles, California: KPFK Pacifica Radio.
“Ligation Images.” Shutterstock, http://www.shutterstock.com/search/ligation.
Reuters. “California Bans Sterilization of Female Inmates Without Consent.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 9 July 2013, http://www.nbcnews.com/health/womens-health/california-bans-sterilization-female-inmates-without-consent-n212256.
Shreffler et al. (2015). Surgical sterilization, regret, and race: contemporary patterns. Social Science Research. 50, 31-45.
Staats, E.B. (1976). Report to Senator James Abourezk. Investigation of Allegations Concerning Indian Health Service. Released November 23. Washington, D.C.: General Accounting Office.
“Tubal Ligation.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 29 Mar. 2018, http://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/tubal-ligation/about/pac-20388360.
Volscho, T. W. (2010). Sterilization Racism and Pan-Ethnic Disparities of the Past Decade: The Continued Encroachment on Reproductive Rights. Retrieved from https://muse.jhu.edu/article/380293/pdf