De Anza College Racism Birth Control and Reproductive Rights Discussion

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200 words about your understood the pro-choice movement.You can also compare your opinion with the article that I upload to you.

I need this in one hour, so you don’t need to make this too hard

Racism, Birth Control and Reproductive Rights When nineteenth-century feminists raised the demand for “voluntary motherhood,” the campaign for birth control was born. Its proponents were called radicals and they were subjected to the same mockery as had befallen the initial advocates of woman suffrage. “Voluntary motherhood” was considered audacious, outrageous and outlandish by those who insisted that wives had no right to refuse to satisfy their husbands’ sexual urges. Eventually, of course, the right to birth control, like women’s right to vote, would be more or less taken for granted by U.S. public opinion. Yet in 1970, a full century later, the call for legal and easily accessible abortions was no less controversial than the issue of “voluntary motherhood” which had originally launched the birth control movement in the United States. Birth control—individual choice, safe contraceptive methods, as well as abortions when necessary—is a fundamental prerequisite for the emancipation of women. Since the right of birth control is obviously advantageous to women of all classes and races, it would appear that even vastly dissimilar women’s groups would have attempted to unite around this issue. In reality, however, the birth control movement has seldom succeeded in uniting women of different social backgrounds, and rarely have the movement’s leaders popularized the genuine concerns of working-class women. Moreover, arguments advanced by birth control advocates have sometimes been based on blatantly racist premises. The progressive potential of birth control remains indisputable. But in actuality, the historical record of this movement leaves much to be desired in the realm of challenges to racism and class exploitation. The most important victory of the contemporary birth control movement was won during the early 1970s when abortions were at last declared legal. Having emerged during the infancy of the new Women’s Liberation movement, the struggle to legalize abortions incorporated all the enthusiasm and the militancy of the young movement. By January, 1973, the abortion rights campaign had reached a triumphant culmination. In Roe v. Wade (410 U.S.) and Doe v. Bolton (410 U.S.), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a woman’s right to personal privacy implied her right to decide whether or not to have an abortion. The ranks of the abortion rights campaign did not include substantial numbers of women of color. Given the racial composition of the larger Women’s Liberation movement, this was not at all surprising. When questions were raised about the absence of racially oppressed women in both the larger movement and in the abortion rights campaign, two explanations were commonly proposed in the discussions and literature of the period: women of color were overburdened by their people’s fight against racism; and/or they had not yet become conscious of the centrality of sexism. But the real meaning of the almost lily-white complexion of the abortion rights campaign was not to be found in an ostensibly myopic or underdeveloped consciousness among women of color. The truth lay buried in the ideological underpinnings of the birth control movement itself. The failure of the abortion rights campaign to conduct a historical self-evaluation led to a dangerously superficial appraisal of Black people’s suspicious attitudes toward birth control in general. Granted, when some Black people unhesitatingly equated birth control with genocide, it did appear to be an exaggerated—even paranoiac—reaction. Yet white abortion rights activists missed a profound message, for underlying these cries of genocide were important clues about the history of the birth control movement. This movement, for example, had been known to advocate involuntary sterilization—a racist form of mass “birth control.” If ever women would enjoy the right to plan their pregnancies, legal and easily accessible birth control measures and abortions would have to be complemented by an end to sterilization abuse. As for the abortion rights campaign itself, how could women of color fail to grasp its urgency? They were far more familiar than their white sisters with the murderously clumsy scalpels of inept abortionists seeking profit in illegality. In New York, for instance, during the several years preceding the decriminalization of abortions in that state, some 80 percent of the deaths caused by illegal abortions involved Black and Puerto Rican women.1 Immediately afterward, women of color received close to half of all the legal abortions. If the abortion rights campaign of the early 1970s needed to be reminded that women of color wanted desperately to escape the back-room quack abortionists, they should have also realized that these same women were not about to express pro-abortion sentiments. They were in favor of abortion rights, which did not mean that they were proponents of abortion. When Black and Latina women resort to abortions in such large numbers, the stories they tell are not so much about their desire to be free of their pregnancy, but rather about the miserable social conditions which dissuade them from bringing new lives into the world. Black women have been aborting themselves since the earliest days of slavery. Many slave women refused to bring children into a world of interminable forced labor, where chains and floggings and sexual abuse for women were the everyday conditions of life. A doctor practicing in Georgia around the middle of the last century noticed that abortions and miscarriages were far more common among his slave patients than among the white women he treated. According to the physician, either Black women worked too hard or … as the planters believe, the blacks are possessed of a secret by which they destroy the fetus at an early stage of gestation … All country practitioners are aware of the frequent complaints of 2 planters (about the) … unnatural tendency in the African female to destroy her offspring. Expressing shock that “… whole families of women fail to have any children,”3 this doctor never considered how “unnatural” it was to raise children under the slave system. The previously mentioned episode of Margaret Garner, a fugitive slave who killed her own daughter and attempted suicide herself when she was captured by slavecatchers, is a case in point. She rejoiced that the girl was dead—“now she would never know what a woman suffers as a slave”—and pleaded to be tried for murder. “I will go singing to the gallows rather than be returned to slavery!”4 Why were self-imposed abortions and reluctant acts of infanticide such common occurrences during slavery? Not because Black women had discovered solutions to their predicament, but rather because they were desperate. Abortions and infanticides were acts of desperation, motivated not by the biological birth process but by the oppressive conditions of slavery. Most of these women, no doubt, would have expressed their deepest resentment had someone hailed their abortions as a stepping stone toward freedom. During the early abortion rights campaign it was too frequently assumed that legal abortions provided a viable alternative to the myriad problems posed by poverty. As if having fewer children could create more jobs, higher wages, better schools, etc., etc. This assumption reflected the tendency to blur the distinction between abortion rights and the general advocacy of abortions. The campaign often failed to provide a voice for women who wanted the right to legal abortions while deploring the social conditions that prohibited them from bearing more children. The renewed offensive against abortion rights that erupted during the latter half of the 1970s has made it absolutely necessary to focus more sharply on the needs of poor and racially oppressed women. By 1977 the passage of the Hyde Amendment in Congress had mandated the withdrawal of federal funding for abortions, causing many state legislatures to follow suit. Black, Puerto Rican, Chicana and Native American Indian women, together with their impoverished white sisters, were thus effectively divested of the right to legal abortions. Since surgical sterilizations, funded by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, remained free on demand, more and more poor women have been forced to opt for permanent infertility. What is urgently required is a broad campaign to defend the reproductive rights of all women—and especially those women whose economic circumstances often compel them to relinquish the right to reproduction itself. Women’s desire to control their reproductive system is probably as old as human history itself. As early as 1844 the United States Practical Receipt Book contained, among its many recipes for food, household chemicals and medicines, “receipts” for “birth preventive lotions.” To make “Hannay’s Preventive Lotion,” for example, [t]ake pearlash, 1 part; water, 6 parts. Mix and filter. Keep it in closed bottles, and use it, with or without soap, immediately after connexion.5 For “Abernethy’s Preventive Lotion,” [t]ake bichloride of mercury, 25 parts; milk of almonds, 400 parts; alcohol, 100 parts; rosewater, 6 1000 parts. Immerse the glands in a little of the mixture.… Infallible, if used in proper time. While women have probably always dreamed of infallible methods of birth control, it was not until the issue of women’s rights in general became the focus of an organized movement that reproductive rights could emerge as a legitimate demand. In an essay entitled “Marriage,” written during the 1850s, Sarah Grimke argued for a “… right on the part of woman to decide when she shall become a mother, how often and under what circumstances.”7 Alluding to one physician’s humorous observation, Grimke agreed that if wives and husbands alternatively gave birth to their children, “… no family would ever have more than three, the husband bearing one and the wife two.”8 But, as she insists, “… the right to decide this matter has been almost wholly denied to woman.”9 Sarah Grimke advocated women’s right to sexual abstinence. Around the same time the well-known “emancipated marriage” of Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell took place. These abolitionists and women’s rights activists were married in a ceremony that protested women’s traditional relinquishment of their rights to their persons, names and property. In agreeing that as husband, he had no right to the “custody of the wife’s person,”10 Henry Blackwell promised that he would not attempt to impose the dictates of his sexual desires upon his wife. The notion that women could refuse to submit to their husbands’ sexual demands eventually became the central idea of the call for “voluntary motherhood.” By the 1870s, when the woman suffrage movement had reached its peak, feminists were publicly advocating voluntary motherhood. In a speech delivered in 1873, Victoria Woodhull claimed that (t)he wife who submits to sexual intercourse against her wishes or desires, virtually commits suicide; while the husband who compels it, commits murder, and ought just as much to be punished for it, as though he strangled her to death for refusing him.11 Woodhull, of course, was quite notorious as a proponent of “free love.” Her defense of a woman’s right to abstain from sexual intercourse within marriage as a means of controlling her pregnancies was associated with Woodhull’s overall attack on the institution of marriage. It was not a coincidence that women’s consciousness of their reproductive rights was born within the organized movement for women’s political equality. Indeed, if women remained forever burdened by incessant childbirths and frequent miscarriages, they would hardly be able to exercise the political rights they might win. Moreover, women’s new dreams of pursuing careers and other paths of self-development outside marriage and motherhood could only be realized if they could limit and plan their pregnancies. In this sense, the slogan “voluntary motherhood” contained a new and genuinely progressive vision of womanhood. At the same time, however, this vision was rigidly bound to the lifestyle enjoyed by the middle classes and the bourgeoisie. The aspirations underlying the demand for “voluntary motherhood” did not reflect the conditions of working-class women, engaged as they were in a far more fundamental fight for economic survival. Since this first call for birth control was associated with goals which could only be achieved by women possessing material wealth, vast numbers of poor and working-class women would find it rather difficult to identify with the embryonic birth control movement. Toward the end of the nineteenth century the white birth rate in the United States suffered a significant decline. Since no contraceptive innovations had been publicly introduced, the drop in the birth rate implied that women were substantially curtailing their sexual activity. By 1890 the typical native-born white woman was bearing no more than four children.12 Since U.S. society was becoming increasingly urban, this new birth pattern should not have been a surprise. While farm life demanded large families, they became dysfunctional within the context of city life. Yet this phenomenon was publicly interpreted in a racist and anti-working-class fashion by the ideologues of rising monopoly capitalism. Since native-born white women were bearing fewer children, the specter of “race suicide” was raised in official circles. In 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt concluded his Lincoln Day Dinner speech with the proclamation that “race purity must be maintained.”13 By 1906 he blatantly equated the falling birth rate among native-born whites with the impending threat of “race suicide.” In his State of the Union message that year Roosevelt admonished the well-born white women who engaged in “willful sterility—the one sin for which the penalty is national death, race suicide.”14 These comments were made during a period of accelerating racist ideology and of great waves of race riots and lynchings on the domestic scene. Moreover, President Roosevelt himself was attempting to muster support for the U.S. seizure of the Philippines, the country’s most recent imperialist venture. How did the birth control movement respond to Roosevelt’s accusation that their cause was promoting race suicide? The President’s propagandistic ploy was a failure, according to a leading historian of the birth control movement, for, ironically, it led to greater support for its advocates. Yet, as Linda Gordon maintains, this controversy “… also brought to the forefront those issues that most separated feminists from the working class and the poor.”15 This happened in two ways. First, the feminists were increasingly emphasizing birth control as a route to careers and higher education—goals out of reach of the poor with or without birth control. In the context of the whole feminist movement, the race-suicide episode was an additional factor identifying feminism almost exclusively with the aspirations of the more privileged women of the society. Second, the pro-birth control feminists began to popularize the idea that poor people had a moral obligation to restrict the size of their families, because large families create a drain on the taxes and charity expenditures of the wealthy and because poor children were less likely to be “superior.”16 The acceptance of the race-suicide thesis, to a greater or lesser extent, by women such as Julia Ward Howe and Ida Husted Harper reflected the suffrage movement’s capitulation to the racist posture of Southern women. If the suffragists acquiesced to arguments invoking the extension of the ballot to women as the saving grace of white supremacy, then birth control advocates either acquiesced to or supported the new arguments invoking birth control as a means of preventing the proliferation of the “lower classes” and as an antidote to race suicide. Race suicide could be prevented by the introduction of birth control among Black people, immigrants and the poor in general. In this way, the prosperous whites of solid Yankee stock could maintain their superior numbers within the population. Thus classbias and racism crept into the birth control movement when it was still in its infancy. More and more, it was assumed within birth control circles that poor women, Black and immigrant alike, had a “moral obligation to restrict the size of their families.”17 What was demanded as a “right” for the privileged came to be interpreted as a “duty” for the poor. When Margaret Sanger embarked upon her lifelong crusade for birth control—a term she coined and popularized—it appeared as though the racist and anti-working-class overtones of the previous period might possibly be overcome. For Margaret Higgens Sanger came from a working-class background herself and was well acquainted with the devastating pressures of poverty. When her mother died, at the age of forty-eight, she had borne no less than eleven children. Sanger’s later memories of her own family’s troubles would confirm her belief that working-class women had a special need for the right to plan and space their pregnancies autonomously. Her affiliation, as an adult, with the Socialist movement was a further cause for hope that the birth control campaign would move in a more progressive direction. When Margaret Sanger joined the Socialist party in 1912, she assumed the responsibility of recruiting women from New York’s working women’s clubs into the party.18 The Call— the party’s paper—carried her articles on the women’s page. She wrote a series entitled “What Every Mother Should Know,” another called “What Every Girl Should Know,” and she did on-the-spot coverage of strikes involving women. Sanger’s familiarity with New York’s working-class districts was a result of her numerous visits as a trained nurse to the poor sections of the city. During these visits, she points out in her autobiography, she met countless numbers of women who desperately desired knowledge about birth control. According to Sanger’s autobiographical reflections, one of the many visits she made as a nurse to New York’s Lower East Side convinced her to undertake a personal crusade for birth control. Answering one of her routine calls, she discovered that twenty-eight-year-old Sadie Sachs had attempted to abort herself. Once the crisis had passed, the young woman asked the attending physician to give her advice on birth prevention. As Sanger relates the story, the doctor recommended that she “… tell (her husband) Jake to sleep on the roof.”19 I glanced quickly to Mrs. Sachs. Even through my sudden tears I could see stamped on her face an expression of absolute despair. We simply looked at each other, saying no word until the door had closed behind the doctor. Then she lifted her thin, blue-veined hands and clasped them beseechingly. “He can’t understand. He’s only a man. But you do, don’t you? Please tell me the secret, and I’ll never breathe it to a soul. Please!”20 Three months later Sadie Sachs died from another self-induced abortion. That night, Margaret Sanger says, she vowed to devote all her energy toward the acquisition and dissemination of contraceptive measures. I went to bed, knowing that no matter what it might cost, I was finished with palliatives and superficial cures; I resolved to seek out the root of evil, to do something to change the destiny of 21 mothers whose miseries were as vast as the sky. During the first phase of Sanger’s birth control crusade, she maintained her affiliation with the Socialist party—and the campaign itself was closely associated with the rising militancy of the working class. Her staunch supporters included Eugene Debs, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Emma Goldman, who respectively represented the Socialist party, the International Workers of the World and the anarchist movement. Margaret Sanger, in turn, expressed the anti-capitalist commitment of her own movement within the pages of its journal, Woman Rebel, which was “dedicated to the interests of working women.”22 Personally, she continued to march on picket lines with striking workers and publicly condemned the outrageous assaults on striking workers. In 1914, for example, when the National Guard massacred scores of Chicano miners in Ludlow, Colorado, Sanger joined the labor movement in exposing John D. Rockefeller’s role in this attack.23 Unfortunately, the alliance between the birth control campaign and the radical labor movement did not enjoy a long life. While Socialists and other working-class activists continued to support the demand for birth control, it did not occupy a central place in their overall strategy. And Sanger herself began to underestimate the centrality of capitalist exploitation in her analysis of poverty, arguing that too many children caused workers to fall into their miserable predicament. Moreover, “… women were inadvertently perpetuating the exploitation of the working class,” she believed, “by continually flooding the labor market with new workers.”24 Ironically, Sanger may have been encouraged to adopt this position by the neo-Malthusian ideas embraced in some socialist circles. Such outstanding figures of the European socialist movement as Anatole France and Rosa Luxemburg had proposed a “birth strike” to prevent the continued flow of labor into the capitalist market.25 When Margaret Sanger severed her ties with the Socialist party for the purpose of building an independent birth control campaign, she and her followers became more susceptible than ever before to the anti-Black and anti-immigrant propaganda of the times. Like their predecessors, who had been deceived by the “race suicide” propaganda, the advocates of birth control began to embrace the prevailing racist ideology. The fatal influence of the eugenics movement would soon destroy the progressive potential of the birth control campaign. During the first decades of the twentieth century the rising popularity of the eugenics movement was hardly a fortuitous development. Eugenic ideas were perfectly suited to the ideological needs of the young monopoly capitalists. Imperialist incursions in Latin America and in the Pacific needed to be justified, as did the intensified exploitation of Black workers in the South and immigrant workers in the North and West. The pseudo-scientific racial theories associated with the eugenics campaign furnished dramatic apologies for the conduct of the young monopolies. As a result, this movement won the unhesitating support of such leading capitalists as the Carnegies, the Harrimans and the Kelloggs.26 By 1919 the eugenic influence on the birth control movement was unmistakably clear. In an article published by Margaret Sanger in the American Birth Control League’s journal, she defined “the chief issue of birth control” as “more children from the fit, less from the unfit.”27 Around this time the ABCL heartily welcomed the author of The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy into its inner sanctum.28 Lothrop Stoddard, Harvard professor and theoretician of the eugenics movement, was offered a seat on the board of directors. In the pages of the ABCL’s journal, articles by Guy Irving Birch, director of the American Eugenics Society, began to appear. Birch advocated birth control as a weapon to … prevent the American people from being replaced by alien or Negro stock, whether it be by 29 immigration or by overly high birth rates among others in this country. By 1932 the Eugenics Society could boast that at least twenty-six states had passed compulsory sterilization laws and that thousands of “unfit” persons had already been surgically prevented from reproducing.30 Margaret Sanger offered her public approval of this development. “Morons, mental defectives, epileptics, illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes and dope fiends” ought to be surgically sterilized, she argued in a radio talk.31 She did not wish to be so intransigent as to leave them with no choice in the matter; if they wished, she said, they should be able to choose a lifelong segregated existence in labor camps. Within the American Birth Control League, the call for birth control among Black people acquired the same racist edge as the call for compulsory sterilization. In 1939 its successor, the Birth Control Federation of America, planned a “Negro Project.” In the Federation’s words, (t)he mass of Negroes, particularly in the South, still breed carelessly and disastrously, with the result that the increase among Negroes, even more than among whites, is from that portion of the population least fit, and least able to rear children properly.32 Calling for the recruitment of Black ministers to lead local birth control committees, the Federation’s proposal suggested that Black people should be rendered as vulnerable as possible to their birth control propaganda. “We do not want word to get out,” wrote Margaret Sanger in a letter to a colleague, … that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.33 This episode in the birth control movement confirmed the ideological victory of the racism associated with eugenic ideas. It had been robbed of its progressive potential, advocating for people of color not the individual right to birth control, but rather the racist strategy of population control. The birth control campaign would be called upon to serve in an essential capacity in the execution of the U.S. government’s imperialist and racist population policy. The abortion rights activists of the early 1970s should have examined the history of their movement. Had they done so, they might have understood why so many of their Black sisters adopted a posture of suspicion toward their cause. They might have understood how important it was to undo the racist deeds of their predecessors, who had advocated birth control as well as compulsory sterilization as a means of eliminating the “unfit” sectors of the population. Consequently, the young white feminists might have been more receptive to the suggestion that their campaign for abortion rights include a vigorous condemnation of sterilization abuse, which had become more widespread than ever. It was not until the media decided that the casual sterilization of two Black girls in Montgomery, Alabama, was a scandal worth reporting that the Pandora’s box of sterilization abuse was finally flung open. But by the time the case of the Relf sisters broke, it was practically too late to influence the politics of the abortion rights movement. It was the summer of 1973 and the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortions had already been announced in January. Nevertheless, the urgent need for mass opposition to sterilization abuse became tragically clear. The facts surrounding the Relf sisters’ story were horrifyingly simple. Minnie Lee, who was twelve years old, and Mary Alice, who was fourteen, had been unsuspectingly carted into an operating room, where surgeons irrevocably robbed them of their capacity to bear children.34 The surgery had been ordered by the HEW-funded Montgomery Community Action Committee after it was discovered that Depo-Provera, a drug previously administered to the girls as a birth prevention measure, caused cancer in test animals.35 After the Southern Poverty Law Center filed suit on behalf of the Relf sisters, the girls’ mother revealed that she had unknowingly “consented” to the operation, having been deceived by the social workers who handled her daughters’ case. They had asked Mrs. Relf, who was unable to read, to put her “X” on a document, the contents of which were not described to her. She assumed, she said, that it authorized the continued Depo-Provera injections. As she subsequently learned, she had authorized the surgical sterilization of her daughters.36 In the aftermath of the publicity exposing the Relf sisters’ case, similar episodes were brought to light. In Montgomery alone, eleven girls, also in their teens, had been similarly sterilized. HEW-funded birth control clinics in other states, as it turned out, had also subjected young girls to sterilization abuse. Moreover, individual women came forth with equally outrageous stories. Nial Ruth Cox, for example, filed suit against the state of North Carolina. At the age of eighteen—eight years before the suit—officials had threatened to discontinue her family’s welfare payments if she refused to submit to surgical sterilization.37 Before she assented to the operation, she was assured that her infertility would be temporary.38 Nial Ruth Cox’s lawsuit was aimed at a state which had diligently practiced the theory of eugenics. Under the auspicies of the Eugenics Commission of North Carolina, so it was learned, 7,686 sterilizations had been carried out since 1933. Although the operations were justified as measures to prevent the reproduction of “mentally deficient persons,” about 5,000 of the sterilized persons had been Black.39 According to Brenda Feigen Fasteau, the ACLU attorney representing Nial Ruth Cox, North Carolina’s recent record was not much better. As far as I can determine, the statistics reveal that since 1964, approximately 65% of the women sterilized in North Carolina were Black and approximately 35% were white.40 As the flurry of publicity exposing sterilization abuse revealed, the neighboring state of South Carolina had been the site of further atrocities. Eighteen women from Aiken, South Carolina, charged that they had been sterilized by a Dr. Clovis Pierce during the early 1970s. The sole obstetrician in that small town, Pierce had consistently sterilized Medicaid recipients with two or more children. According to a nurse in his office, Dr. Pierce insisted that pregnant welfare women “will have to submit (sic!) to voluntary sterilization” if they wanted him to deliver their babies.41 While he was “… tired of people running around and having babies and paying for them with my taxes,”42 Dr. Pierce received some $60,000 in taxpayers’ money for the sterilizations he performed. During his trial he was supported by the South Carolina Medical Association, whose members declared that doctors “… have a moral and legal right to insist on sterilization permission before accepting a patient, if it is done on the initial visit.”43 Revelations of sterilization abuse during that time exposed the complicity of the federal government. At first the Department of Health, Education and Welfare claimed that approximately 16,-000 women and 8,000 men had been sterilized in 1972 under the auspices of federal programs.44 Later, however, these figures underwent a drastic revision. Carl Shultz, director of HEW’s Population Affairs Office, estimated that between 100,000 and 200,000 sterilizations had actually been funded that year by the federal government.45 During Hitler’s Germany, incidentally, 250,000 sterilizations were carried out under the Nazis’ Hereditary Health Law.46 Is it possible that the record of the Nazis, throughout the years of their reign, may have been almost equaled by U.S. government-funded sterilizations in the space of a single year? Given the historical genocide inflicted on the native population of the United States, one would assume that Native American Indians would be exempted from the government’s sterilization campaign. But according to Dr. Connie Uri’s testimony in a Senate committee hearing, by 1976 some 24 percent of all Indian women of childbearing age had been sterilized.47 “Our blood lines are being stopped,” the Choctaw physician told the Senate committee, “Our unborn will not be born … This is genocidal to our people.”48 According to Dr. Uri, the Indian Health Services Hospital in Claremore, Oklahoma, had been sterilizing one out of every four women giving birth in that federal facility.49 Native American Indians are special targets of government propaganda on sterilization. In one of the HEW pamphlets aimed at Indian people, there is a sketch of a family with ten children and one horse and another sketch of a family with one child and ten horses. The drawings are supposed to imply that more children mean more poverty and fewer children mean wealth. As if the ten horses owned by the one-child family had been magically conjured up by birth control and sterilization surgery. The domestic population policy of the U.S. government has an undeniably racist edge. Native American, Chicana, Puerto Rican and Black women continue to be sterilized in disproportionate numbers. According to a National Fertility Study conducted in 1970 by Princeton University’s Office of Population Control, 20 percent of all married Black women have been permanently sterilized.50 Approximately the same percentage of Chicana women had been rendered surgically infertile.51 Moreover, 43 percent of the women sterilized through federally subsidized programs were Black.52 The astonishing number of Puerto Rican women who have been sterilized reflects a special government policy that can be traced back to 1939. In that year President Roosevelt’s Interdepartmental Committee on Puerto Rico issued a statement attributing the island’s economic problems to the phenomenon of overpopulation.53 This committee proposed that efforts be undertaken to reduce the birth rate to no more than the level of the death rate.54 Soon afterward an experimental sterilization campaign was undertaken in Puerto Rico. Although the Catholic Church initially opposed this experiment and forced the cessation of the program in 1946, it was converted during the early 1950s to the teachings and practice of population control.55 In this period over 150 birth control clinics were opened, resulting in a 20 percent decline in population growth by the mid-1960s.56 By the 1970s over 35 percent of all Puerto Rican women of childbearing age had been surgically sterilized.57 According to Bonnie Mass, a serious critic of the U.S. government’s population policy, … if purely mathematical projections are to be taken seriously, if the present rate of sterilization of 19,000 monthly were to continue, then the island’s population of workers and peasants could be extinguished within the next 10 or 20 years … (establishing) for the first time in world history a systematic use of population control capable of eliminating an entire generation of people.58 During the 1970s the devastating implications of the Puerto Rican experiment began to emerge with unmistakable clarity. In Puerto Rico the presence of corporations in the highly automated metallurgical and pharmaceutical industries had exacerbated the problem of unemployment. The prospect of an ever-larger army of unemployed workers was one of the main incentives for the mass sterilization program. Inside the United States today, enormous numbers of people of color—and especially racially oppressed youth—have become part of a pool of permanently unemployed workers. It is hardly coincidental, considering the Puerto Rican example, that the increasing incidence of sterilization has kept pace with the high rates of unemployment. As growing numbers of white people suffer the brutal consequences of unemployment, they can also expect to become targets of the official sterilization propaganda. The prevalence of sterilization abuse during the latter 1970s may be greater than ever before. Although the Department of Health, Education and Welfare issued guidelines in 1974, which were ostensibly designed to prevent involuntary sterilizations, the situation has nonetheless deteriorated. When the American Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project conducted a survey of teaching hospitals in 1975, they discovered that 40 percent of those institutions were not even aware of the regulations issued by HEW.59 Only 30 percent of the hospitals examined by the ACLU were even attempting to comply with the guidelines.60 The 1977 Hyde Amendment has added yet another dimension to coercive sterilization practices. As a result of this law passed by Congress, federal funds for abortions were eliminated in all cases but those involving rape and the risk of death or severe illness. According to Sandra Salazar of the California Department of Public Health, the first victim of the Hyde Amendment was a twenty-seven-year-old Chicana woman from Texas. She died as a result of an illegal abortion in Mexico shortly after Texas discontinued government- funded abortions. There have been many more victims—women for whom sterilization has become the only alternative to the abortions, which are currently beyond their reach. Sterilizations continue to be federally funded and free, to poor women, on demand. Over the last decade the struggle against sterilization abuse has been waged primarily by Puerto Rican, Black, Chicana and Native American women. Their cause has not yet been embraced by the women’s movement as a whole. Within organizations representing the interests of middle-class white women, there has been a certain reluctance to support the demands of the campaign against sterilization abuse, for these women are often denied their individual rights to be sterilized when they desire to take this step. While women of color are urged, at every turn, to become permanently infertile, white women enjoying prosperous economic conditions are urged, by the same forces, to reproduce themselves. They therefore sometimes consider the “waiting period” and other details of the demand for “informed consent” to sterilization as further inconveniences for women like themselves. Yet whatever the inconveniences for white middle-class women, a fundamental reproductive right of racially oppressed and poor women is at stake. Sterilization abuse must be ended.
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