When North Carolina announced earlier this year that it intends to be the first state to compensate victims of decades-ago sterilization programs, it renewed a nationwide debate over the need to acknowledge and amend the travesties of similar programs in other states. Tens of thousands of women, men and even children were sterilized from the early 1900s through the middle part of the century. Often, the victims were misled about the treatments they were undergoing; sometimes they were pressured or even forced to cooperate. Most had been deemed unfit to reproduce, often because they weren’t white and sometimes because they were ruled mentally inferior. The programs all were justified by eugenics policies meant to improve the gene pool.
Advocates for the thousands of Native women who were victimized by such programs say another motivation lurked behind the horrific abuses. “This was a concerted attack on Indian American women that constituted genocide,” says Andrea Carmen, a former sterilization activist from the Yaqui Nation who now serves as executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council.
The advocates say apologies in recent years by North Carolina and a handful of other states are a start, but the real healing can come only after an apology at the national level. They say that’s what it will take to combat the racism that led to the sterilization programs and is still evident today.
The list of abuses is varied but invariably shocking: Native women going in for C-sections and coming out with tubal ligations; Native girls going in for tonsillitis and coming out with tubal ligations; young Native women being given hysterectomies after being told that they were reversible; Native women being used in Depo-Provera trials without being informed of the risks; Indian Health Service (IHS) workers implanting the controversial Norplant capsules in a patient’s arm, but claiming to lack the training to remove it, even when it caused complications.
Carmen was a college student in the 1970s when she began to encounter similar stories of abuse. She recalls her conversation with one 30-something student: “She raised her blouse up, and she had been sterilized in three different ways.” She was also told of a woman who was unable to deliver her full-term baby—and discovered that her cervix had been sewn shut without her knowledge.
Carmen and some of her classmates formed the Coalition Against Sterilization Abuse (CASA), in the early 1970s. The group, which had famed Native activist Lehman Brightman as its advisor, hosted conferences, rallied public awareness and support, and forged alliances with other communities that had been similarly victimized: African American, Puerto Rican and Latin American women among them.
Eventually, help came for many of the sterilization victims. A few years after CASA got its start, a Choctaw/Cherokee doctor named Connie Pinkerton-Uri began to publish horrifying histories of sterilization abuses. She released a groundbreaking study in 1974 that claimed one in four Native women had been sterilized without their consent. South Dakota Senator James Abourezk commissioned a General Accounting Office study to investigate the complaints of Native women; those results were published in 1976. The study has since been criticized for its limited scope, because it used only case records with no additional investigation and covered just four IHS Service Areas: Albuquerque; Oklahoma; Phoenix; and Aberdeen, South Dakota. Still, it documented that more than 3,400 Native women had been sterilized under such policies between 1973 and 1976.
Charon Asetoyer, Comanche, is chief executive officer and a founding director of the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center. Her organization is putting the finishing touches on a report detailing the history of sterilization abuses against Native American women. She says the total number of women subjected to such treatments, including Natives, is shocking. “In the state of Virginia, there were 8,300 people who were sterilized,” between 1929 and 1979 she says. “There were 7,600 in North Carolina [in roughly the same time frame].” The report estimates that more than 16,000 women were sterilized in California. Other reporting estimates more than 20,000 women were sterilized in California from 1909 to 1964.
North Carolina Is Leading the Healing
About a decade ago, a few states began apologizing for their eugenics programs. Virginia issued an apology in May 2002, followed by Oregon in December of that year. North Carolina became the third, in December 2002, followed by South Carolina in January 2003 and California that March.
North Carolina had been one of the most aggressive states when it came to pursuing eugenics programs, says Charmaine Fuller Cooper, executive director of the North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, who adds that the youngest reported victim there was just 10.
Following the state’s apology in 2002, North Carolina’s governor convened the foundation that Fuller Cooper now leads. It serves as a clearinghouse for victims and provides contacts for reporters looking to publicize the issue. And the legislature has worked steadily to pass a plan for financial reparations.
This year, the state appears ready to start compensating victims; the governor recently revealed that there’s a line item in Fuller Cooper’s proposed budget to cover $50,000 for each victim that can be confirmed, and the state legislature only has to sign off on the legislation. So far, about 132 victims have been verified, with 118 of them still alive. “There are quite a few people who have [said] that they were sterilized, but unfortunately we only have records for those sterilized under the Eugenics Board program,” Fuller Cooper says. The foundation has established a toll-free number, 877-550-6013, and is hoping to hear from North Carolina victims who may now be scattered across the country.
Asetoyer says apologies and reparation by states are good things, but she would like to see the federal government make similar amends. “This is a huge stain on the pages of American history. These were atrocities that were committed in our communities, and there has been no acknowledgement, no apology. Why isn’t the federal government apologizing to our women? States are making restitution. The federal government should too.”
She adds that the basis of the eugenics movement was that poor people were seen as “inferior human beings who would bring down the gene pool. Native Americans in particular were seen as obstacles to the rich who wanted to control the nation’s natural resources.”
And without widespread attention to that attitude—and national advocacy to change it—she believes it’s likely to keep surfacing.
Carmen agrees. “There are so many things that need apologizing for: There’s the boarding schools. If the policies stay the same, the apology is a moot point; it’s just like the foster-care system is still removing Indian children hand over fist. The point is to change the policies.… ”