Reproductive Violence in North Carolina

Art by Cristy C. Road

North Carolina is responding to its legacy of eugenic sterilization violence, which included forcibly sterilizing thousands of people throughout the 20th century.   Though people of color, people with disabilities, and low-income people, especially women, were forcibly sterilized throughout the United States,  Indyweek.com reports that North Carolina has a unique legacy of sterilization abuse.  They write,

Most of the states with eugenic sterilization programs dismantled them after World War II when the horrors of the Holocaust were uncovered. North Carolina, however, ramped up its program in the postwar years, increasingly targeting poor black women during the ’50s and ’60s.

By the program’s end in 1974, North Carolina ranked third among the states for number of eugenic sterilizations performed—at least 7,600 over 45 years. It was also the only state in which social workers were empowered to start the sterilization petitioning process. The Eugenics Board of North Carolina—comprised of five bureaucrats who met monthly in Raleigh—approved 90 percent of the sterilization petitions, often deciding cases within 15 minutes and without interviewing the individual to be sterilized. More than 70 percent of the victims were sterilized for “feeblemindedness,” a vague term open to the board’s interpretation—from supposedly possessing a low IQ to being “promiscuous,” “rebellious” or even “untidy.”

The eugenics program of North Carolina was part of a much larger pattern of sterilization abuse across the South. A class action lawsuit filed in federal court from Alabama in 1973 revealed that an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 poor women in the United States had been sterilized annually under federally funded programs. Nearly half of these women were black, numbers far exceeding the percentage of African-American women in the general population. This number of sterilizations equals the rate reached by the Nazi sterilization program in the 1930s.

“It wasn’t just a North Carolina issue. These kinds of population control policies tend to target socially devalued people,” says Dr. Dorothy Roberts, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law and author of Killing the Black Body. “The message is that certain people shouldn’t be having children. They are blamed for their own low social status.”

Full article hereAgainst Their Will: North Carolina’s Sterilization Program is a multi-media report by the Winston-Salem Journal on the legacy of eugenics in the US and in North Carolina.  Also, Indyweek.com features related articles about the process of North Carolina offering redress for the violence, historical resources on the eugenics movement in the US and North Carolina, and more historical context about the powerful eugenics movement in the United States.

Eugenic reproductive violence is an ongoing issue for many communities.  For example, Harvard University Fellow Martin Kramer recently called for eugenic policies against Palestinian women.  The Electronic Intifada reports,

Kramer proposed that the number of Palestinian children born in the Gaza Strip should be deliberately curbed, and alleged that this would “happen faster if the West stops providing pro-natal subsidies to Palestinians with refugee status.”

Women of color, LGBTQ people of color, people with disabilities, and low-income people continue to organize for reproductive justice. For example, this weekend, Hampshire College is hosting the From Abortion Rights To Social Justice Conference.

On April 9-11, 2010, campus and community activists will gather at Hampshire College to unite for reproductive justice. We offer more than 40 workshops and trainings. Conference speakers address reproductive freedom as it relates to a broad range of social justice initiatives including economic justice, health care reform, racial equality, freedom from violence, immigrant rights, climate justice, and LGBTQ rights, just to name a few.

Also, for more reflections from women of color organizers and scholars about the ongoing impact of reproductive violence and our legacy of movement building for reproductive liberation, check out the following resources:

Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty by Dorothy E. Roberts

Policing the National Body: Race, Gender and Criminalization in the United States by Anannya Bhattacharjee and Jael Silliman

Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organizing for Reproductive Justice by Jael Silliman, Marlene Gerber Fried, Loretta Ross, and Elena Gutierrez

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