By Rose Anim
The Eugenics movement in the United States resulted in the sterilization of minorities deemed unfit for reproduction. The movement initially focused its attention on sterilizing those deemed to have been “feebleminded”; which is the idea that so-called unintelligent people were reproducing at a much faster rate than those deemed intelligent (Fresh Air). However, this category of feeblemindedness proved to be insidious as it came to encompass a large swath of traits that society considered undesirable. Soon enough, the movement had its primary focus on sterilizing racial minorities, particularly Black women. This was especially apparent in North Carolina where about 7,600 people were sterilized, with a majority being Black. (Stern). The movement became a deliberate form of violence against minorities that was systematically and socially enforced, yet has seemingly become a taboo topic.
The Eugenics movement gained its legitimacy in 1927 after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Buck v. Bell. The case was brought against Carrie Buck, a white woman committed to the Virginia State Colony who was ordered to be sterilized under a 1924 Virginian law. According to Buck v. Bell, the law allowed forced sterilization under the reasoning that “the health of the patient and the welfare of society may be promoted in certain cases by the sterilization of mental defectives” (par. 2). The case was ruled in favor of sterilization with Supreme Court Justice Wendell Holmes opining, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…Three generations of imbeciles are enough” (Buck v. Bell). Associate Justice Holmes’ opinion thoroughly captures the prevalent ideology driving the Eugenics movement: certain groups of people, constrained under a white supremacist model of ideal, weren’t fit to procreate.
Across the nation, and in North Carolina in particular, a clear racialized trend emerged: black women were more likely to be sterilized. Initially, this unfortunate statistic fell on white women. However, around the time of desegregation, there was a dramatic uptick in sterilizations of black women compared to white women. (Stern). It is possible that the racial backlash to integration caused this uptick, as sterilization could be viewed as a way to reassert white supremacy against black persons and their autonomy. In North Carolina alone, Black women were three times more likely to be sterilized than white women and twelve times more likely to be sterilized than white men (Stern).
Although this history of sterilization is very prominent and recent, it is a rarely discussed topic. This can be exemplified in the clips identified in the Stories to Save Lives archive where the available clips work at a disjunction: they simultaneously emphasize the prominence of the movement and its ideas, while displaying all the ways that it is hidden. What stands out in the following clips is the coexisting conversation of such a horrific topic trailed by very little, if any, follow-ups. This trend presents a glaring dichotomy that I believe emphasizes the many ways the U.S. works to hide its dark past through neglect.
In the clip from Jim Kellenberger’s interview, Kellenberger reflects on the largely hidden legacy of sterilization at Dorothea Dix, a North Carolina psychiatric hospital. He details how the dominant Freudian psychology at the time focused on sex, and as a result, presented hysterectomies as the so-called obvious solution. He states that thousands were performed without permission or patient knowledge. Kellenberger takes the time to emphasize that these procedures were and are hardly discussed. He says, “most people don’t want to talk about [the topic]” (00:11:56 – 00:11:59). Kellenberger’s clip provides very useful insight into the widespread nature of past sterilizations, and how the present has seemingly hidden it well. This presents an interesting chasm on the topic because it is part of the legacy of Dorothea Dix, yet it is silently agreed upon to not discuss.
In Jacqui Laukaitis’ clip, she discusses working with physicians who promoted sterilization to their mostly Hispanic patient clientele, based on having had too many children already. She remembers a story of a particular doctor who continually suggested sterilization to his patients. Laukaitis’ clip not only contextualizes sterilization as a systemically enforced phenomenon but a social one as well, one with very deep roots in the medical field. It is very interesting that a medical professional, a man of science, is openly advocating for sterilization because it illuminates a new perspective: eugenics was as much a social issue as it was a scientific issue. It is immensely salient to recognize that a majority of the patients the doctor attended to were Hispanic. This echoes the racialized nature of targeted sterilizations.
In George Cosmos’ interview, Cosmos expresses examining women only to find that they did not have a uterus, a fact even the women were unaware of themselves. The women would then tell him that the doctors sterilized them as a way to “help” them from having too many children. This language of “helping” is very reminiscent of the ideology of the early eugenics documents such as the Virginia law, which saw sterilization as a way of helping society. The women’s lack of knowledge of their procedures underscores the structural, and nonconsensual nature of the enforced violence the patients sustained. In addition, it also exemplifies the disjunction on the topic of sterilizations, where we know it happened, yet it is something that was and is rarely discussed.
The clips referenced above make up a very small part of this celebrated archival project that covers numerous topics. However, I would assert that it precisely proves how the topic of sterilization has become a taboo topic, despite being a very prominent part of history, especially North Carolinian history. Among the many hours of this project, sterilization comprises less than five minutes and is discussed only briefly or is missing a very important perspective: the victims of such violence. The conversations are dominated by two men and one woman, none of whom experienced it. This lack of representation successfully illustrates the concerted effort to stigmatize the topic and as a consequence, deny public acknowledgment.
North Carolina is one of the very few states that have publicly acknowledged its role in the eugenics movement. Still, it is a less than impressive acknowledgment of such appalling violence. In 2013, the state passed legislation that set aside only $10 million to disperse to the estimated 1500 living victims (Neuman). In translation, if the high estimate of 1,500 victims qualify, each person receives about $6667 — for being robbed of their reproductive rights and autonomy. Even then, the legislation wasn’t fully inclusive as there were requirements that not all victims met. The legislation required victims seeking compensation to have been formally documented by the Eugenics Board of North Carolina (Mennel). However, some sterilizations did not go through this channel. This created far-reaching consequences that affected people like Debra Blackmon, a black woman sterilized in 1972. Debra Blackmon, despite having court and medical documents that cruelly characterized her as ‘“severely retarded’” (Mennel) among other things, did not qualify for the program and did not receive compensation. To the victims that met legislation requirements, payments concluded in 2018.
The large swatch of knowledge, in contrast with the little public acknowledgment of the violence of sterilization, compellingly casts sterilization as the surreptitious elephant in the room. It appears that sterilization is not a topic our society is ready to fully face. Yet, sterilization is still a practice we actively engage with. For example, from 1997 to 2010, 1,400 female prisoners had unwanted sterilizations performed on them in California prisons (Stern). This here is the mystery of this form of violence: we are seemingly ready and willing to put it into practice for inhumane reasons, but acknowledging it is a bridge too far. The Stories to Save Lives project perfectly highlights this through the limited clips that show both the pervasiveness and the socially enforced effort to not discuss it.
Cosmos, George. Interview with Darius Scott. 26 June 2018 (Y-0015). Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Kellenberger, Jim. Interview with Caroline Efird. 4 January 2019 (Y-0063). Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Laukaitis, Jacqui. Interview with Isabell Moore. 2 August 2019 (Y-0108). Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007), Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Mennel, Eric. “Payments Start for N.C. Eugenics Victims, but Many Won’t Qualify.” NPR, NPR, 31 Oct. 2014, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/10/31/360355784/payments-start-for-n-c-eugenics-victims-but-many-wont-qualify.
Neuman, S. (2013, July 25). North Carolina set to compensate forced sterilization victims. NPR. Retrieved April 24, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/07/25/205547272/north-carolina-set-to-compensate-forced-sterilization-victims
Stern, Alexandra. “Forced Sterilization Policies in the US Targeted Minorities and Those with Disabilities – and Lasted into the 21st Century.” Institute for Healthcare Policy & Innovation, The Regents of the University of Michigan, 23 Sept. 2020, https://ihpi.umich.edu/news/forced-sterilization-policies-us-targeted-minorities-and-those-disabilities-and-lasted-21st.
United States, Supreme Court. Buck v. Bell, Superintendent of State Colony Epileptics and Feeble Minded. 2 May 1927. Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School, https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/274/200.