The long history of forced sterilization of Latinas

By Julissa Arce

Activist, Writer, and Producer

In the fall of 2020, headlines of forced sterilizations at the for-profit Irwin County ICE detention center in Georgia, dominated the news cycle. A formal complaint filed by an ICE nurse with Homeland Security’s Inspector General alleged that detainees were denied medical care and were possibly forced into unnecessary hysterectomies. What many of the reports lacked was context of the long history in the United States of coerced sterilizations of Latinas.

From 1907 to the 1970s, state-sanctioned forced sterilizations were widespread with 33 states having eugenics boards that had the authority to order such procedures.

As late as 1981, Oregon approved one final sterilization. These boards were directly related to the eugenics movement, which sought to “better” humanity by preventing supposedly inferior people from reproducing.

In the 1930s, doctors in Puerto Rico falsely pushed women into sterilizations as the only means of contraception. It is estimated that between 1947-1948, 7% of Puerto Rican women were sterilized and by 1956, one out of three women suffered the same fate. The women of the Young Lords, the revolutionary organization that fought for the self-determination of Puerto Ricans, argued that in many cases Puerto Ricans were told their tubes were being tied, but never told it was an irreversible procedure. The documentary La Operacion explores these abuses in further detail.

In 1970, a whistleblower exposed evidence of rampant abuses at the Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center, where mostly Mexican women were coerced into agreeing to be sterilized. Evidence showed that Spanish-speaking women were repeatedly approached during childbirth and pressured to sign consent forms written in English.

In a subsequent lawsuit led by co-counsel Antonia Hernandez, who went on to head MALDEF, that became known as the Madrigal Ten, the women sued to end the practice of sterilization without informed consent. The judge that blamed it all on a communication breakdown. He went on to argue that he believed Mexican women draw their worth from “rearing” a large family, so their pain came not from being sterilized against their will, but because they could not fulfill their Mexican duties. He ruled in favor of the USC-Los Angeles County Medical Center.

The most recent allegations of coerced sterilizations are the latest in a pattern of the state trying to control brown and Black bodies.

We must continue to protect the rights of all people regardless of race, education and income level, or immigration status to have autonomy over their own bodies.

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