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In February of 2015, Virginia lawmakers voted to begin a compensation program for the surviving victims of state sanctioned forced sterilization. Between 1924 and 1979, more than 8,000 people were sterilized under the Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act. Now, only 11 of those affected are still alive.  Advocates for the survivors lobbied the Virginia General Assembly for three years until lawmakers agreed to budget $400,000 for the group of them, at a rate of $25,000 in compensation individually. Virginia is the second state to implement such measures.  North Carolina gave $50,000 to each victim of its sterilization program that remained alive in 2013.

Delegate Ben Cline, a conservative Republican from Rockbridge County, is one of the measures original sponsors. He stated that lawmakers implemented this legislation under a “growing consensus that we needed to act while we still had the opportunity to look these people in the eye and acknowledge the wrong that was committed against them so many years ago.”  He added that the gesture is largely symbolic, and a means to allow for healing and forgiveness.

In many ways, the sentiment underlying Cline’s statement is correct. This decision by Virginia lawmakers is profound for its transcendental implications; namely, that the Virginia Sterilization Act was a model in its time for legislation passed around the country. Sterilization programs were enacted in 33 states between 1907 and 1933, with more than 65,000 affected. However, Cline speaks as though forced and systemic sterilization programs have been eradicated in practice from the United States.  This is untrue.

A Senate investigation revealed that at least 2,000 involuntary sterilizations were performed with governmental funds on poor black women without their knowledge or consent from 1972-1973. From the 1930s to the 1970s, it is estimated that 35 percent of all Puerto Rican women of childbearing age had been surgically sterilized, often through coercive measures. On the West Coast, where issues of Mexican immigration are prominent, physicians have been found to target Mexican and Mexican-American women for sterilization as a method for reducing the population of people more statistically likely to be on welfare roles.  From 1973-1976 3,406 Native American Women were sterilized without permission from the Indian Health Service, a total of 25% of the population of fertile Native American women.   As recent as last year the Center for Investigative Reporting that between 1997 and 2010 the state of California paid more than $147,000 for 148-250 sterilizations of California prisoners – a demographic that is overwhelming female and black.  Medical abuse in the process of curtailing procreation of women – and particularly women of color and/or poor women – is something that persevered throughout the 20th century.

Eugenic ideals are often believed to be a relic of the past. The principles of Eugenics are likewise most commonly correlated with the practices of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany.  This association is understandable, given the horrific and genocidal means the Nazi Party took to create a so-called “master race.” But while the Final Solution and the Third Reich certainly embody the devastating consequences of eugenics at its most extreme, the history of eugenics and its byproducts (such as sterilization) has roots before and beyond World War II.

Eugenics at its most broad was considered a philosophy that sought to improve human (genetic) traits through either the promotion of higher rates of reproduction for people who embody any number of subjectively chosen desired traits (known as positive eugenics) or through an attempt to reduce reproduction among people with undesirable traits (known as negative eugenics).   Though the idea that reproduction should be watched and monitored by the nation-state has been in practice since Plato, it was not until the 1860s and 1870s that these ideas were situated in a scientific context.  Darwin’s publication in 1859, On the Origin of Species ushered in a new way of examining evolution, which posited the hypothesis that organisms develop through the natural selection of small, inherited adaptations that raise an individual’s ability to compete, survive, and reproduce. The so-called “father of eugenics” Francis Galton took this theory of evolution and sought to apply it to humans, believing that desirable traits within humans could be based on biographical population studies.  He gave this study the name eugenics from the Greek eugenës, a word meaning ‘noble in heredity.’  Galton described the science of eugenics as giving “the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable.”

From its inception, eugenics operated within a set of racist ideology, though such a claim is tinged with presentist critique.  Race in the United States as understood during the 19th and early 20th century functioned differently than racial constructs do presently, and varied depending on regional and cultural considerations of difference.  However, political programs during the Reconstruction era and Jim Crow laws in the Southern United States thereafter codified the notion of race and racial difference more firmly into the legal policy of the United States.  An upsurge of immigration from first Southern and Eastern Europe, and later from China and Japan would, alongside eugenic ideology in the political sphere, shaped an emerging xenophobic chapter of American nationalism at the turn of the century.  As American Sociologist Tukufu Zuberi writes in his book Thicker than Blood, “the context of eugenic discourse has tended to reflect and support social inequalities.  In societies where race was salient, such as the United States, the discourse of eugenics focused on problems of racial differentials in fertility, miscegenation, and immigration of the racial ‘inferior.’”

At the turn of the twentieth century, many white European, American, and South African eugenicists became worried that Western Civilization was going through a population decline and would be threatened by “inferior” races.  Leading American eugenicists Charles B. Davenport advocated against an intermingling of different races, because he felt that bi-or-multi-racial procreation would produce inferior children.  In a philosophy combining the work of Mendel, Darwin, and Lamarck, he believed that in mixed-race unions the inferior traits of each individual would be preserved, for the presence of “unfit” blood.

 The emergence of Social Darwinism foregrounded a type of evolutionary philosophy that viewed evolution of different races on a scale of “savage” and “civilized.”  White “civilization” was placed in contrast with Native and African American “primitivism,” wherein eugenicists made the claim that mixed and non-white races were less evolved than people of the white race.   Mendel’s laws of segregation and independent assortment further fortified the notion that separating out people with “good” and “civilized” traits (i.e., white people) and people with “bad” and “primitive” traits (i.e.. non-white people) could prevent inheritance of the unfavorable traits.  For American eugenicists, politicians, policy makers, this led to the adoption of “negative” eugenic practices.  In opposition to the practice of “positive” eugenics, which focused on breeding, the “most fit” citizens with each other, the United States (and the German Nazi party) adopted legislation and policy that focused on reducing the procreation of inferior races.  This included policies to establish quotas on immigration from nations that were considered inferior.   Zuberi offers illumination on this subject, writing, “inferior races and individuals would reproduce their inferiority, and because of their high fertility, they posed a threat to the quality of life in society.”

Another perceived threat to the quality of life in the United States was falling birth rates among white citizens of the United States. As birth rates of white citizens, white women became a  central focus in the fight to preserve the integrity of the white race. By 1915 white women were considered the “mothers of tomorrow” who controlled the racial makeup of future generations.  Contemporaneously, eugenics, race, and fertility became tied together at the beginning of the 20th century, with female sexuality at the apex of creating civilization.  The act of having sex was inculcated with political meaning, eugenics playing a role in the management of sexuality – particularly female sexuality.

This societal supervision over sexuality led to a legacy of institutional interjection into the ways in which women use their bodies for sexual activities (like procreation) that persists to present. While the relic of United States programs targeting procreation had an effect on all people with the ability to have children, the history of sterilization and advent of hormonal birth control is distinctly racialized in its pathology.  Many politicians, social activists, businessmen, and scientists who took an interest in the processes surrounding sterilization and hormonal birth control in the early 1900s were influenced by racist eugenic ideology.

Non-coincidentally, the years in which the United States passed sterilization laws in over thirty states into being are also the years where the waves of immigrants arriving in the country were considered to be “less civilized” or “genetically inferior” people.  In response to this rise in immigration, the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization appointed a eugenic consultant in 1920 named Harry Laughlin, who warned against this new wave of immigrants.  He, and other such people, lobbied for laws that would sterilize at least twenty thousand people by 1935.  Symbolically, these laws helped codify eugenic ideas about the restriction of breeding of unfit populations, such as Native Americans, African Americans, and people considered insane.

The mechanisms of racial difference in the 19th and 20th century were rooted in scientific consideration of the sexuality that maintained social consequences.  Thus, many eugenic philosophies were rooted in the sexual bodies and procreative habits of individuals being studied.   In this way, physiognomy was practiced with regard to racial difference, entering codified ideas of masculinity and femininity onto different genders with regards to their race. From the mid-1800s onward, in eugenic research, women of color were associated with primitivism, such that the components of their sexuality – from the shape of their bodies, to the people they were sexual with, to the amount of sexual activity they engaged with, to their procreative habits, and to their sexual maturity – were indelibly considered to be barbaric in nature.

These scientific stereotypes had profound consequences on the legislative and institutional impacts of sexual management, as highlighted by the history of birth control and sterilization in the United States territory.  Historian Rebecca M. Kluchin, in her book on the history of eugenics in the United States, calls these practices neo-eugenics.  She considers neo-eugenics to be a set of “ideas, practices and policies that continue some legacies of eugenics in the post-baby boom years.” She claims that this movement is not a formal one, but a familiar one, whose adherents rest their social critiques on standards of reproductive fitness.  In these post-baby boom years she believes that Black, Latina, and Native American people became more specifically targeted – given the assimilation of South and Eastern European people into the white race.

Kluchin’s term of “neo-eugenics” may be used to help understand the impetus behind recent cases of forced sterilization of women of color in the United States by medical professionals and governmental institutions. Neo-eugenics, then, have been used to defend the privileged position of white people in American society.  In the United States, we are still living within an era defined by eugenical beliefs and within a government that administers involuntary birth control and sterilization to some of the most disenfranchised citizens of our country.

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