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.