Assault on Reproductive Justice Distorts Disability Rights Perspectives

In the past months, Ohio state legislators have introduced a bill that would criminalize abortions of those “seeking the abortion solely because” of a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis. While the bill ostensibly seeks to uphold the legitimate rights of people with Down Syndrome to live fruitful, meaningful, and self-directed lives, critics say that conservative pro-life legislators have co-opted the language of disability rights in order to forward their anti-abortion agenda.

Writing for Dame Magazine, Robin Marty elaborates:

” ‘This will put up a barrier between women and their health-care providers,’ Jaime Miracle, Deputy Director for NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, told DAME Magazine. ‘How do you define ‘knowingly’? What kind of standards are we setting? Are we turning doctors into inquisitors for every women who comes in seeking a termination? Do they have to question every woman on why they are getting an abortion?’

According to Miracle, like most abortion restrictions, this ban will disproportionately effect lower-income women, as those with financial means will be able to leave the Ohio to seek a termination in a state where it is still legal.  Ironically, at the same time, the state legislature is cutting health-care budgets, social-service budgets, and even homes for those with special needs. “Lower-income women who are going to need support services, especially to raise a child with challenges, are going to be the ones to fall through the cracks,’ she said.”

As Ohio legislators simultaneously defund services for people with disabilities while purporting to uphold disability rights through pro-life legislation, their agenda becomes more apparent. In an opinion piece for reproductive justice publication RH Reality Check, David Perry explored the supposed tension between disability rights and reproductive justice:

‘The tension between reproductive and disability rights that these kinds of bills seek to worsen is not a new problem; in fact, there has been a false choice between the two movements since the development of amniocentesis made disability-selection abortion possible. In 1991, for example, the New York Times ran a piece headlined “Abortion Issue Divides Advocates for the Disabled.” What’s changed, though, is the intensifying emphasis on Down syndrome in the anti-choice legal maneuvering. As prenatal tests become cheaper and available earlier, they are being used in more and more pregnancies. As a result, anti-choicers are using their alleged concerns for disability rights as a way to erode choice.’

Intersectional reproductive justice and disability rights group Generations Ahead rejected the supposed opposition of disability rights and reproductive rights in a statement titled The Unnecessary Opposition of Rights responding to a separate, but related, development.

These cases illustrate the convoluted legacy of eugenics thinking as it pertains to reproductive justice. While some may use the bitter history of American eugenics to support a pro-life agenda, reductively arguing that selective abortion is simply a new form of eugenics, others recognize that continued attempts to restrict the reproductive choices of women, especially women of color and/or low-income women, itself draws from racist and classist motivations that played out with devastating consequences when state eugenic sterilization laws were on the books across the US from the 1910s to 1970s. Disconnects amongst those advocating for women’s reproductive rights are similarly longstanding. In the 1910s, influential birth control advocate Margaret Sanger fought for the right for (some) women to access birth control and contraception, while collaborating with eugenicists crafting a legislative framework to deny those very rights to marginalized Black, Native American, immigrant, and/or low-income women and women with real or perceived disabilities through forced sterilization.

The continuing tensions and controversies highlight the need for the sort of intersectional reproductive justice lens pioneered by Black women’s health advocates during the 1990’s and beyond. As the foundational reproductive justice activist and thinker Loretta Ross has written on the emergence of a reproductive justice framework:

“Reproductive Justice is, in fact, a paradigm shift beyond demanding gender equality or attaching abortion rights to a broader reproductive health agenda. All of these concepts are, in fact, encompassed by the Reproductive Justice framework. RJ is an expansion of the theory of intersectionality developed by women of color and the practice of self-help from the Black women’s health movement to the reproductive rights movement, based on the application of the human rights framework to the United States. Reproductive justice is in essence an intersectional theory emerging from the experiences of women of color whose multiple communities experience a complex set of reproductive oppressions. It is based on the understanding that the impacts of race, class, gender and sexual identity oppressions are not additive but integrative, producing this paradigm of intersectionality. For each individual and each community, the effects will be different, but they share some of the basic characteristics of intersectionality – universality, simultaneity and interdependence.

Reproductive Justice is a positive approach that links sexuality, health, and human rights to social justice movements by placing abortion and reproductive health issues in the larger context of the well-being and health of women, families and communities because reproductive justice seamlessly integrates those individual and group human rights particularly important to marginalized communities. We believe that the ability of any woman to determine her own reproductive destiny is directly linked to the conditions in her community and these conditions are not just a matter of individual choice and access. For example, a woman cannot make an individual decision about her body if she is part of a community whose human rights as a group are violated, such as through environmental dangers or insufficient quality health care. Reproductive justice addresses issues of population control, bodily self-determination, immigrants’ rights, economic and environmental justice, sovereignty, and militarism and criminal injustices that limit individual human rights because of group or community oppressions.”

 

 

 

 

Virginia to Compensate Victims of Eugenic Sterilization

The State of Virginia has passed legislation that would offer financial compensation to victims of the state’s eugenic sterilization program, which forcibly sterilized over 8,000 Virginians deemed “unfit” to reproduce from the 1920s through 1970s. Reports indicate that only 11 surviving victims have been identified, and will each receive a $25,000 compensation. This makes Virginia the second state to address the crimes of forced sterilization through compensation. In 2012, North Carolina announced similar plans to compensate surviving victims of forced sterilization. Payments began in 2014, though the process has been riddled with red tape and loopholes that some say are preventing sterilization victims from receiving their proper compensation.

Virginia Sterilization Act of 3/20/1924
Virginia Sterilization Act of 1924

 

Virginia passed its Eugenic Sterilization Act in 1924, alongside a “Racial Integrity Act” which made it “unlawful for any white person in [Virginia] to marry any [person] save a white person.” Battles over the legality of the state’s sterilization law culminated in 1927, when the Supreme Court ruled eugenic sterilization constitutional in the infamous ruling in the case Buck v. Bell. Eugenics sterilization laws proliferated after the ruling. Eventually over 30 states adopted compulsory sterilization bills motivated by eugenics.

Virginia order form for sterilization procedure
Virginia order form for sterilization procedure

 

Though the eugenics movement fell out of popular favor with the onset of World War II, Virginia’s sterilization act remained on the books until 1979. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, the law was increasingly used to target Black women within the welfare system.

 

 

The Problem With the “Population Bomb”: Eugenics and Population Control

Newsweek’s recent article “How to Defuse the Population Bomb” confronts an old subject with a frustratingly uncritical eye. The piece details the much-discussed problem of overpopulation with a focus on its environmental and economic implications. It paints a troubling picture of a poor, dirty, and overcrowded “Africa” (referred to en masse as often as by specific countries). The answer to avoiding an even more overburdened, resource-starved earth? Massively increase birth control accessibility and family planning education in the Global South. While informed, consensual access to birth control ought to be a worldwide right, the uncritical, alarmist discourse around population control deployed here fails to incorporate a critical historical lens.

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The article makes a brief foray into the history of birth control via Western intervention in the non-white world, linked to the slave trade and the era of formal colonization in the African continent. But the historical analysis stops there, before reaching the 20th century and the insidious modern history of continued Western intervention into family planning in the developing world—a history linked to eugenics and population control.

The American eugenics movement of the early 20th century was largely concerned with domestic issues of “race suicide”—the perceived demographic shift away from a white Anglo-American majority due to immigration and variable reproductive rates between racial groups. But this domestic demographic crisis was clearly linked to a parallel crisis happening at a global scale. Imperial rhetoric employed in works like Lothrop Stoddard’s hugely influential The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy was amplified by the notion that population growth in the non-white world would outstrip that of the “civilized nations.” International policymaking and philanthropy, coupled with alliances between eugenicists, neo-Malthusians, and other population control camps, would follow. The 1925 Sixth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference in New York brought together a critical mass of parties interested in global population control. Foundational international birth control organizations such as International Planned Parenthood Federation and Pathfinder International were borne out of the intersections of the eugenics, birth control, and population control movements and the wallets of eugenically minded philanthropists like Clarence Gamble. For decades, Gamble’s Pathfinder International oversaw the distribution of untested and unsafe birth control methods throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, while funding staffing at Puerto Rico’s Family Planning Association, which advocated for sterilization as an alternative to contraception. Coupled with the implementation of Harry H. Laughlin’s “model eugenic sterilization law” in 1936, one-third of Puerto Rican women would be sterilized by 1968. Rushed, dangerous, and ill-informed contraception initiatives, such as the one undertaken in India in the 1970, were consistently pushed and funded by American interests.

Sterilization propaganda in Puerto Rico promised success and stability after "la operación".
Sterilization propaganda in Puerto Rico promised success and stability after “la operación”.
Sterilization campaigns targeting women of color came under increasing fire from women of color activists in the the 1970s.
Sterilization campaigns targeting women of color came under increasing fire from women of color activists in the the 1970s.

All in the name of “population control” and cloaked in arguments of economic development, environmental sustainability, women’s rights…

Even today, the distribution of a little-known and under-tested drug called Quinacrine, has been cited as the “newest tool in a decades-long movement of coercive sterilization.” As reported by the Center for New Community, a racial justice research institution, the push for distribution of Quinacrine in the developing world is linked to contemporary far-right anti-immigrant organization and key players in the history of eugenics and population control.

The point is not a simplistic assertion that calls for population control are akin to calls for eugenics or neo-eugenics. Rather, we urge contemporary conversations about population control to consider critically the history of how eugenics operated within the population control movement, soiling a potentially beneficial project with racism, abuse, and violence. Alarmist calls for population control are more likely to repeat the mistakes of the past than are critical, historically nuanced conversations. Even more, when it comes to conversations about very real problems of resource depletion and poverty, we have to wonder why difficult questions of resource re-distribution and overconsumption tend to be passed over for the easy tropes of “too many Africans.” The implications of the privileging of Western luxury over “third world” bodies are hard to ignore.

 


 

Read more:

Hansen, Randall and King, Desmond. “Eugenics and World Population Control.” In Sterilized by the State: Eugenics, Race, and the Population Scare in Twentieth-Century North America.

 

Eugenics’ Critics: Another Sort of ‘Defective’

Despite the power and popularity of American eugenics in the early 20th century, the movement also faced its share of critics: from the Catholic Church to Boasian anthropologists, some formally trained geneticists, and standout politicians like Emanuel Celler.  (Unfortunately, resistance from communities targeted by eugenicists, such as new immigrants and people with disabilities, is more difficult to trace.) Though their criticisms were largely unheeded in the 1910s and 1920s, their contributions to a slowly growing body of political, academic, and scientific disregard for eugenics thought would help spell the end of popular American eugenics by the end of World War II.

Now, we’ve come across a fascinating refutation of eugenics from a 1915 edition of The Day Book, a Chicago daily newspaper. In it, writer R.F. Paine writes a scathing, radically anti-corporate critique of eugenics. Stirred by the 1914 slaughter of Standard Oil strikers by Colorado militiamen, Paine suggests that the perpetrators of corporate greed and exploitation make up the true “defective” class.

It’s a welcome rebuttal to the claims of eugenicists and the philanthropists who funded them. How would such an article have been received in 1915?

 

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Full text:

WHERE TO BEGIN.The millions of Mrs. Harriman, relict of the great railroad “promoter,” assisted by other millions of Rockefeller and Carnegie, are to be devoted to sterilization of several hundred thousands of American “defectives” annually, as a matter of eugenics.

It is true that we don’t yet know all that the millions of our plutocracy can do to the common folks. We see that our moneyed plutocrats can own the governments of whole states, override constitutions, maintain private armies to shoot down men, women and children and railroad innocent men to life imprisonment for murder, or lesser crimes. And if we submit to such things, we ought not to be surprised if they undertake to sterilize all those who are obnoxious to them.

Of course, the proposition demands much on who are the declared “defective.”

The old Spartans, with war always in view, used to destroy, at birth, boys born with decided physical weakness. Some of our present day eugenists go farther and damn children before their birth because of parents criminally inclined. Then we have eugenic “defectives” in the insane and incurably diseased…

But isn’t there another sort of “defective,” who is quite as dangerous as any but whom discussion generally overlooks, especially discussion by senile, long-hailed pathologists, and long-eared college professors involved in the Harriman-Rockefeller scheme to sterilize?

A boy is born to millions. He either doesn’t work, isn’t useful, doesn’t contribute to human happiness, is altogether a parasite, or else he works to add to his millions, with the brutal, insane greed for more and more that caused the accumulation of the inherited millions. Why isn’t isn’t such the most dangerous “defective” of all? Why isn’t the prevention of more such progeny the first duty of eugenics? Such “defectives” directly attack the rights, liberties, happiness, lives of millions.

 

Talk about inheriting criminal tendencies! If there a ranker case of such than the inheritance of Standard Oil criminality as evidenced in the slaughter of mothers and their babies at Ludlow?

 

Sterilization of hundreds of thousands of the masses, by the Harrimans and Rockefellers? Let’s first try out the “defectives” of the sons of Harriman and Rockefeller!

Modern Eugenics, Sterilization, and the Anti-Immigrant Movement

“If America is to escape the doom of nations generally, it must breed good Americans.”

Harry H. Laughlin (1914), Eugenics Record Office superintendent,”expert” advisor on the
1924 Immigration Restriction Act and architect of the widely adopted “model eugenic sterilization law.”

“I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.”

John Tanton (December, 1993), founder, Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR)


A 2013 report from the Center for New Community traces the disturbingly direct ties between hardline eugenicists of the pre-WWII era and contemporary anti-immigrant organizations and sterilization/”population control” campaigns.

As the report explains, in 1937 ERO superintendent Harry H. Laughlin helped Wickliffe Draper found the Pioneer Fund, dedicated to “fund the scientific study of heredity and human differences.” Today, the Fund is alive and well, having funded the bulk of the research cited in Murray and Herrnstein’s infamous book The Bell Curve (1994), and more recently pouring money into John Tanton’s Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the fierce anti-immigration group behind Arizona SB 1070, a bill authorizing police to demand papers proving immigration status from anyone they suspect of being in the country unlawfully. Meanwhile, Tanton has been behind the promotion and proliferation of Quinacrine, a “permanent birth control” method that advocates have pushed into the developing world, administering the drug to often under-informed or misled women in the name of “population control”.

Quinacrine Report
Read the report in full.

Frustrations with N.C. Sterilization Compensation

Last year one of the most prolific forces in American compulsory sterilization passed a law paying out compensation to those still living with the tragic legacy of the practice. North Carolina sterilized some 7,000 people between 1929 and 1976, with an estimated 3,000 individuals still alive and able to claim $20,000 in reparations offered by the legislation.

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Debra Blackmon (left) was sterilized by court order in 1972, at age 14. With help from her niece, Latoya Adams (right), she’s fighting to be included in the state’s compensation program. Eric Mennel/WUNC

This week NPR is reporting that hundreds of people who were forced to undergo the procedure in the state may not ever be compensated because of a technicality. According to the law the sterilization had to have been officially approved by the state’s Eugenics Board. However, many individuals were targeted at the local level by judges or social workers who cited state law but didn’t get official approval for their decisions.

A spokesman for the state when asked if NC is responsible for these individuals responded, “That’s kind of hard to say. Again, it’s just an unfortunate part of our history. It’s just something that was done. So it’s kind of hard to say that the state would be responsible when it was just kind of an accepted practice.”

To say that the state isn’t responsible for creating a legal framework in which individuals in power were able to sterilize those they saw as “unfit” is deeply misguided. This kind of obfuscation is doubly offensive because of the way in which eugenic sterilizations were often done without the knowledge of the victim, and thus eliminated the ability to appeal the decision to the Eugenics Board. If NC and its elected officials were truly committed to justice they would take full responsibility and make sure no victim of compulsory sterilization was manipulated out of their deserved compensation by the very bureaucracy that once so callously abused them.

You can find NPR’s full report here.

Victims of NC Compulsory Sterilization Tell Their Stories

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For 46 years North Carolina force-sterilized roughly 7,600 individuals under legislation enacted in 1929 by eugenicists. Today some 3,000 individuals are still alive and in the process of receiving compensation for what the state did to them. In June 2011 several victims testified before the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation. Click the link below and skip to 13:35 to hear their stories.

N.C. Sterilization Victims Testimony