The Sound of Silence: Where Is the Anti-Choice Outcry Over North Carolina’s Forced Sterilization of Women of Color?

A task force in North Carolina recently ruled that survivors of that state’s eugenics program should be paid $50,000 each in financial compensation. Eugenics is often defined as the science of “improving” a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of “desirable” heritable characteristics. The practice of eugenics was not limited to Nazi Germany nor is it a well kept secret that’s been waiting to be discovered by organizations opposed to reproductive justice.

In America, state governments set up eugenics boards that determined the reproductive future of thousands. I grew up listening to my maternal Grandmother, a Mississippi native, warn against trusting doctors and passing along lessons she learned from other poor women of color who went into a hospital to give birth only to later find out that they were given a Mississippi Appendectomy without their consent. The horrific legacy of these state eugenics boards is one of the reasons why I embrace the reproductive justice framework advocating for the right to have children, not have children, and to parent children in safe and healthy environments.

From the early 1900s up until the 1970’s, over 30 states had formal eugenics programs. These programs enforced compulsory sterilization of individuals deemed to be “unfit” and “promiscuous.” States sterilized people that were disabled, poor, people of color, and immigrants. North Carolina had a particularly aggressive program that was alone in allowing social workers to select people for sterilization based on IQ tests. To date, only seven states have formally apologized for eugenics programs and no state has paid money to survivors. Although a task force appointed by the Governor in North Carolina ruled in favor of payment to survivors, their recommendations are now in the hands of state legislators.

Too often eugenics is looked on as a shameful part of German history and many Americans are unaware of the history of eugenics in this country. I’m reminded of the warning that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. No, I’m not about to repeat black genocide claims that modern health care centers use contraception as a weapon or the ‘easily debunked if folks just used Google Maps’ conspiracy theory about abortion clinics being located in predominately black neighborhoods. I’m referring to the history of government taking control over people’s reproductive future and how that component of the history of eugenics and is very present today. While those opposed to reproductive justice appropriate the language of Civil Rights to perpetuate bizarre anti-knowledge theories about dangerous black women and how we are the greatest threat to the newly identified species of “black child,” states that actually ran eugenics programs and sterilized thousands of people get little to no attention and all too often as not held accountable for those actions.

As for the doomed to repeat it part, many of those same states continue to seek dominion over women through everything from state mandated vaginal penetration of women seeking abortion services to a record number of restrictions hindering access to reproductive health care. States are gaining more control over people’s reproductive health care decisions and some organizations have even tried to get states to seize total control.

On the most basic level, the history of state eugenics boards is about the survivors. Their stories tell the tale of the damage wrought when government policy is used as a weapon to control the masses. Clearly that’s not a tale anti-choice folks opposed to reproductive justice are interested in making a flashy YouTube video about, because the sound of their silence on the news out of North Carolina has been deafening. With the exception of a few articles that chose to launch into another rant about Planned Parenthood rather than demand support for North Carolina’s survivors and a call for justice for victims of the other 30+ state eugenics programs, those who are usually eager to toss the accusation of eugenics out appear to be uninspired by cases of actual eugenics in America.

As reproductive justice activists we must organize in support of survivors of state eugenics programs. We must demand that states act as North Carolina has to move toward justice. But we must also continue to resist and organize against the current anti-choice legislative power grab seeking control once more over our bodies while claiming they do so for the benefit of society. The recommendations from North Carolina’s eugenics task force serve to remind us that our cause is rooted firmly in the history oppression and that justice remains the right to have children, not have children, and to parent children in safe and healthy environments.

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  • standstrong

    Who do you think FIRST brought up the whole issue? Elaine Riddick, forcibly sterilized in North Carolina, was featured in Maafa21…produced by prolife advocates. She’s one of those “anti-choicers” you criticize. The black prolife movement has been exposing this issue, all rooted in eugenics, for decades. Those billboards hit on this. There are numerous articles from prolifers about the issue, such as and Dr. Alveda King’s  

    The idea of forced sterilizations? Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood, in conjunction with the American Eugenics Society, are responsible for pushing eugenics-based laws in state after state. In fact, many eugenics boards were comprised of Planned Parenthood personnel, board members, and associations. Put the blame where it is due.

    There’s not been ANY silence from black prolifers, but deafening cries falling silent upon pro-abortion ears.

  • progo35

    I agree with StandStrong. Yes, some pro lifers defended sterilization back then, but many spoke out against it, including those “anti choice” clerics who currently oppose abortion. I’m pro life and am writing an entire published article on eugenics. You can re-write history to conform to your ideologies, but doing so won’t make it true.

  • progo35

    It’s also interesting that you note the sterilization of people of color, but are SILENT on the sterilization against those with disabilities.

  • iflizwerequen

    fantastic post–Thank you for writing it.

    Very eye-opening information!

    I first read your article in FireDogLake

    So few Americans are aware of the eugenics programs– a brutal movement which inflicted massive human rights violations on millions of people.  The “interventions” advocated and practiced by eugenicists involved prominently the identification and classification of individuals and their families, including the poor, mentally ill, blind, deaf, developmentally disabled, promiscuous women and entire racial groups such as the Roma and Jews  as “degenerate” or “unfit”; the segregation or institutionalisation of such individuals and groups, their sterilization, euthanasia, and in the extreme case of Nazi Germany, their mass extermination.

    The most hideous indictment of our nation is that, as you report in your article, “. . .until the 1970’s, over 30 states had formal eugenics programs.”  That is OUTRAGEOUS.  Almost 30 years after the lessons we should have learned from Hitler.


    We all need to be reminded that eventually millions of us will be designated as “the other” in such programs:  First it’s the  Jews, then it’s the Romas and the Jews;  then it’s the Jews, Romas and Blacks;  then it’s the Jews, Romas, Blacks, and the disabled; then its the . . . . 

  • purplemistydez

    Thank you for the great article.  Eugenics and the anti-choice crowd are both trying to control the reproductive lives of women color.  As women of color we need to stop the assaults on our rights to control our fertility and health.  I see pro-choice as the only position where women are completely free to make any choice they feel is right for them.  Sterilization and forced birth is the same side of the coin.  No control of reproduction is anti-freedom.

  • plume-assassine

    What anti-choicers don’t realize is that when you do not embrace full reproductive freedom for all people, then you run the risk of being nonchalant about eugenics. After all, if you are already the type of person to say that a woman has no choice in when/whether she will have children because all pregnancies must result in a live birth no matter what… then why should you be morally outraged if somebody says that a “certain type” of woman should not be allowed to get pregnant at all?
    The only way to combat this problem is to understand that forced abortion, forced sterilization, and forced childbirth/pregnancy are ALL human rights violations. You can’t just pick and choose. They all violate reproductive freedom and human dignity.

    Any government that is given the power to force its citizens to remain pregnant/reproduce against their will, also has the power to mandate abortions and forced sterilization of its citizens.

    Positive and negative eugenics are equally unethical. It’s time that people realize this.

  • progo35

    “After all, if you are already the type of person to say that a woman has no choice in when/whether she will have children because all pregnancies must result in a live birth no matter what… then why should you be morally outraged if somebody says that a “certain type” of woman should not be allowed to get pregnant at all?”

    The problem is that that’s a projection, and Merritt’s article is based entirely on that projection. It makes no distinction between what individual organizations or indivduals have done-the point is to link eugenics to being pro life/”anti choice,” not to have a thoughtful discussion about why eugenics lasted for as long as it did, or why people from both sides of the political aisle thought it was a good idea.

  • cmarie

    Stand Strong and Progo35 pretty much covered it, which is no doubt why their comments were so quickly censored.  Judging from the title and photograph accompaning this article the implication is that this is an article about something happening here and now, not about events prior to the second World War.


  • person-0

    It went on until 1974 and estimates are that up to 2000 victims are still alive.

    Facts are good and readily available to all. Try them sometime.

  • progo35

    Yes, it did go on until the seventies. And, it still happens today. But, this article is just…crap. It doesn’t analyze anything, doesn’t consider why eugenics occurs-it’s just an accusatory statement.

  • crowepps

    Their comments, and yours, are still right here, available to anyone who wants to look at them.  Some commenters tend to be voted down often because their posts are factually incorrect.

    1970 – The Nixon administration dramatically increases Medicaid-funded sterilization of low-income Americans, primarily Americans of color. While these sterilizations are voluntary as a matter of policy, anecdotal evidence later suggests that they are often involuntary as a matter of practice as patients are often misinformed, or left uninformed, regarding the nature of the procedures that they have agreed to undergo.

    1979 – A survey conducted by Family Planning Perspectives finds that approximately 70% of American hospitals fail to adequately follow U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines regarding informed consent in cases of sterilization.

    1981 – Oregon performs the last legal forced sterilization in U.S. history.

  • crash2parties

    …and it’s a slippery slope, the government deciding who gets the priviledge of being allowed to reproduce and who does not.

    13 states currently force trans people to undergo forced sterilization (ie, SRS surgery specifically removing the ability to reproduce) before the State will issue them an ID with their correct sex on it.  Doesn’t matter if they are, for instance, a trans man who has been living as himself for decades.  Or someone unable to have surgery for health reasons.  Or just the majority of trans people who may not want the risk or high expense (not often covered by insurance.  Make that, rarely covered).  And regarding it being a choice to want that corrected ID; no, it’s a safety issue.  Personal safety, job safety, privacy safety.

    If mid-spectrum trans people (ie those who don’t have to choose between SRS and life) are not allowed to have children, who is next?

  • purplemistydez

    There was a story about a woman in the same church as Mitt Romney.  He had served as a spiritual advisor to her.  When she got pregnant, he had advised her not to abort.  When she did have the baby, Mitt told her that she adopt her son out to a married couple since she was unwed and she was not considered an appropriate parent.  Seems like the only “right” people to have children are straight, rich, christian, and white.

  • crowepps

    Mitt Romney was serving as Bishop of his stake.  Those stories concern two different women.  The single mother was Peggy Hayes:

    The woman having the medically necessary abortion has remained anonymous, but her story is here: