Sterilization Abuse on Women of Color (by Anabel Gómez)

Overview: The purpose of the activity is to give students ample information to understand the racial and socioeconomic circumstances surrounding sterilization abuse inflicted on poor women of color from the 1960s to late 1970s.

Framework: Students will read articles about the experiences of Black, Native American, Mexican-American, and Puerto Rican women in regard to sterilization and sterilization abuse in the United States. Students will then analyze two opposing primary documents and assess the information presented in each source. They will compare the information they have learned about sterilization and sterilization abuses in order to participate in a conversation about reproductive issues in present day.

Essential Understanding: It’s important for students to understand that the sterilization abuse movement was also affected by the eugenics movement and pro-sterilization feminist movement. The differing perspectives within each movement caused the physical and emotional suffering of targeted low-income women of color to continue long after the issue of sterilization abuse was publicized.

Essential questions:

  1. Where did the idea of forced sterilizations derive from?
  2. What caused an increase in forced/voluntary sterilizations?
  3. Why was there not larger support for this movement?
  4. What were some of the motivations behind sterilization (both forced and voluntary)?
  5. How do the reproductive rights of women of color in the past compare to their reproductive rights as of now?


Sterilization: a process or act that renders a person unable to produce children.

Salpingectomy: the removal of one or both of a woman’s fallopian tubes, the tubes through which an egg travels from the ovary to the uterus.

Eugenics: the study of hereditary improvement of the human race by controlled selective breeding.

Population control: a variety of techniques are used with contraception being least used. Permanent surgical interference is common in food, racing and companion animal groups, and termination of pregnancy and estrus synchronization, both by hormonal means, are also extensively practiced.


The growth of sterilization procedures is in part due to the work of feminist groups who fought to further their reproductive rights. They saw sterilization as a means to take control of their body and of their reproductive future. The sterilization abuse movement was popularized by several women’s health groups, like Chicago Committee to End Sterilization Abuse, which acted as a combative force against other feminist groups advocating for the spread of sterilization. Sterilization abuse was perceived as a divisive issue rather than a problem that needed to be acknowledged by both white and multi-ethnic feminists [1].

Women from upper-class and educated backgrounds were amongst the population of women who were pleased with the spread of sterilization [1]. But during this spread, there were stories of a growing phenomenon involving women, majority of whom were minorities, who were forcibly sterilized by doctors with racist and classist agendas. Experiences ranged from doctors coercing, threatening, or lying in order to have their patients sterilized. The Eugenics movement heavily influenced the reasoning behind these sterilizations [3]. At first, people in psychiatric facilities were sterilized in an effort to eradicate mental illnesses in future generations [3]. Then the idea of the “war on poverty” caused for low-income women to be targeted for sterilization. There was an emphasis on population control in order to solve the crisis of poverty in the United States. The reasoning behind the forced sterilizations varied. There were doctors who thought they had their patients’ best interest and there were others who thought impoverished women of color were the root cause of American poverty [4].

As the stories of women who forcibly sterilized in hospitals grew, the Chicago Committee to End Sterilization Abuse formed as a way to bring public and governmental attention to this issue during the late 1970s. Due to the influence of their activism and support, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare increased the regulations surrounding sterilization procedures. However, hospitals around the United States violated these regulations by continuing to coerce women of color into the surgery right after having given birth or threatening to revoke their welfare benefits. After the regulations failed to solve the growing issue, several monumental court cases were able to prosecute the hospitals as well as the doctors who performed the unwanted procedures. One of these cases included Madrigal v Quilligan where a group of Mexican-American women were coerced into sterilization procedures. Mexican women had long been stereotyped as hyperbreeders and inferior, an example of how eugenics played a big role in forced sterilizations [3]. However, these cases allowed for the government to impose even stricter guidelines for these procedures. To this day, he discrimination of women in regard to reproductive rights has continued well after the sterilization abuse movement.


[1] Sterilization Abuse: A Task for the Women’s Movement.” Sterilization Abuse: A Task for the Women’s Movement. January 1, 1977.

[2] Gonzales Betty. “Voluntary Sterilization.” AJN, American Journal of Nursing 70, no. 12 (1970): 2581.


Day 1

There will be a lecture over the brief history of sterilization abuse from the 1960s to the 1970s.

Students will then look over two primary documents, one from the Chicago Committee to End Sterilization Abuse and the other from a representative of the Association for Voluntary Sterilization. The class will be separated into small groups to discuss the differing perspectives of each document and the bias present in the statistical information of each source.

Homework: Students will be assigned excerpts from several articles that detail the personal experiences of the women of color who were subject to voluntary or forced sterilization. This is meant to emphasize the importance of personal accounts in regard to analyzing historical events.

Day 2

Students will participate in a mock debate/court trial over the information presented in the readings assigned from Day 1 and engage in a conversation over the present day realities over reproductive rights in America.

The class will be divided into two groups and announce different “justifications” for their opposing side. This is done to better understand the perspectives of feminist pro-sterilization groups and of hospital staff involved with sterilization procedures, as well as the perspectives of anti-sterilization abuse organizations.

As the activity progresses and the students use examples from the readings, they will begin to understand the racial and socioeconomic complications that were present during the sterilization abuse movement. The point of the activity is to help the students understand that each side of the debate had valid points and were also misinformed on the issues of sterilization.

They will then participate in a conversation about current reproductive rights using the information they know presently about it and the information from this activity using the following question as a guide.

1. How are women’s reproductive rights being controlled to this day, and why?

Additional Sources:

[3] Stern, Alexandra Minna. “STERILIZED in the Name of Public Health: Race, Immigration, and Reproductive Control in Modern California.” American Journal of Public Health 95.7 (2005): 1128.

[4] Lawrence, Jane. “The Indian Health Service And The Sterilization Of Native American Women.” The American Indian Quarterly 24, no. 3 (2000): 410.

[5] Randall, Vernellia R. “Slavery, Segregation and Racism: Trusting the Health Care System Ain’t Always Easy–An African American Perspective on Bioethics.” . Louis U. Pub. L. Rev. 15 (1995): 202.

[6] Briggs, Laura. “Discourses of “forced Sterilization” in Puerto Rico: The Problem with the Speaking Subaltern.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 10, no. 2 (1998): 30.


  1. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
  2. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
  3. Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.
  4. Analyze how a text uses structure to emphasize key points or advance an explanation or analysis.

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