Giving Compass' Take:
- Ray Levy-Uyeda shares how a 1927 Supreme Court ruling has been used to justify the involuntary sterilizations of more than 70,000 women in America and highlights organizations that are working to address the issue.
- How can you help to support victims and advocate for change?
- Learn more about the history of forced sterilization in the U.S.
What is Giving Compass?
We connect donors to learning resources and ways to support community-led solutions. Learn more about us.
Kelli Dillon was only 24 when a surgeon at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla decided that she was not fit to be a parent and intentionally sterilized her without her consent. Dillon had sought medical attention for an abnormal pap smear and told the doctor that should he find cancerous cells, he could operate. After the procedure, Dillon intuitively felt that something was wrong, but the surgical team didn’t tell her she had been sterilized. Dillon fought the prison staff for over a year to gain access to her medical records, and only when a lawyer from Justice Now, an Oakland-based social justice legal advocacy organization, requested the records did Dillon learn the truth.
In 2001, Dillon was one of 148 women incarcerated and living inside California’s state prisons who experienced medical abuse in the form of forced tubal ligations or total hysterectomies without their knowledge or consent and without required state approvals. A 2013 report by The Center for Investigative Reporting found that the state paid prison doctors $147,460 between 1997 and 2010 to sterilize incarcerated women, which one prison doctor said “isn’t a huge amount of money” when “compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children as they procreated more.”
Forced sterilization remains legal today at the federal level in the U.S. because of a 1927 Supreme Court case known as Buck v. Bell. American eugenicists used the case to probe the constitutionality of a Virginia state law that permitted forcible sterilizations to see whether they could take the process nationwide, says Jasmine E. Harris, a professor of law at the University of California, Davis School of Law. An 8-1 decision found that the institutionalization of Carrie Buck for “feeblemindedness” and her subsequent sterilization were both legal and justified.
Once other states saw that they could justify the medical abuse of women with this legal precedent, sterilizations increased dramatically in the 20th century. Some estimates say that at least 70,000 women were forcibly sterilized because of state laws and other sources list the number of victims between 100,000 and 150,000. The uncertainty surrounding these totals is telling. “[Buck v. Bell] gave the green light to states to go ahead and actually create or incentivize sterilization of unwanted populations,” Harris says, referring to those whose bodies and lives exist outside the norm of able-bodied White men, namely Black and Brown women.
Read the full article about forced sterilization by Ray Levy-Uyeda at YES! Magazine .