Sterilization of Native American Women
Reviewed by Omaha Master's Student, Bruce E. Johansen
For: JosÚ Barreiro (editor-in-chief of NATIVE AMERICAS)
On the phone, during long marches, occupying federal surplus property, in court fighting for treaty rights -- wherever Indian activists gathered during the "Red Power" years of the 1970s, conversation inevitably turned to the number of women who had had their tubes tied or their ovaries removed by the Indian Health Service. This was, I heard one woman joke bitterly at the time, a "fringe benefit of living in a domestic, dependent nation."
Communication spurred by activism provoked a growing number of Native American women to piece together what amounted to a national eugenic policy, translated into social reality by copious federal funding. They organized WARN (Women of All Red Nations) at Rapid City, South Dakota, as Native women from more than thirty nations met and decided, among other things, that "truth and communication are among our most valuable tools in the liberation of our lands, people, and four-legged and winged creations."
WARN and other women's organizations publicized the sterilizations, which were performed after pro-forma "consent" of the women being sterilized. The "consent" sometimes was not offered in the women's language, following threats that they would die or lose their welfare benefits if they had more children. At least two fifteen-year-old girls were told they were having their tonsils out before their ovaries were removed.
The enormity of government-funded sterilization has been compiled by a masters' student in history, Sally Torpy, at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her thesis, "Endangered Species: Native American Women's Struggle for Their Reproductive Rights and Racial Identity, 1970s-1990s," which was defended during the summer of 1998, places the sterilization campaign in the context of the "eugenics" movement.
No one even today knows exactly how many Native American women were sterilized during the 1970s. One base for calculation is provided by the General Accounting Office, whose study covered only four of twelve IHS regions over four years (1973 through 1976). Within those limits, 3,406 Indian women were sterilized, according to the GAO.
Another estimate was provided by Lehman Brightman, who is Lakota, and who devoted much of his life to the issue, suffering a libel suit by doctors in the process. His educated guess (without exact calculations to back it up) is that 40 per cent of Native women and 10 per cent of Native men were sterilized during the decade. Brightman estimates that the total number of Indian women sterilized during the decade was between 60,000 and 70,000.
By 1970, anecdotal evidence of the surge in sterilization began to accumulate, according to Torpy's detailed account. For example, welfare case workers in Apollo, Pennsylvania had removed Norma Jean Serena's daughter Lisa, three years of age, and son, Gary, age four, from her home before she underwent a tubal ligation after the birth of her son Shawn, in 1970. One day after Shawn was removed to a foster home, Serena signed consent forms for the surgery, emotionally battered by accusations of case workers that she was an unfit mother.
Three years later, with legal assistance from the Council of Three Rivers Indian Center in Pittsburgh, Serena sued Armstrong County for return of her children from foster care. She also sued a number of area hospitals for damages related to her sterilization. A jury found that the children had been taken under false pretenses from Serena, who is of mixed Creek and Shawnee ancestry.
During trial, attorneys for Serena questioned the "evidence" on which welfare case workers had decided to take her children and recommend her sterilization. The main "problem" seemed to have been the fact that black friends of Serena visited her home, as reported by anonymous tipsters in the neighborhood who asserted fear for their own children. While one caseworker described Serena's apartment as "dirty and unkempt," and her children as "undernourished and dazed," unable to walk, speak, or hold eating utensils, a doctor who examined the children shortly afterwards found them "alert and in good health." According to Torpy's account, Serena was awarded $17,000 by a jury, and her children were ordered released to her. The Armstrong County child welfare bureaucracy stalled several months before returning the children, according to Torpy's account, and did so only after officials were confronted with a contempt-of-court citation.
Parts of Serena's case were not settled until 1979, when several doctors and a male social worker were acquitted of having violated her civil rights by taking part in her sterilization. The key issue was whether she had given consent for the operation. Serena said she could not recall having signed a consent form; the attending physician said he had explained the operation to Serena and that he was convinced she understood him. A jury agreed.
At about the same time that Serena had her run-in with case workers, a twenty-six year old Native American woman entered the office of a Los Angeles physician in 1970 seeking a "womb transplant" because she had been having trouble getting pregnant. The doctor, who never asked her name, told the woman she had been the subject of an hysterectomy, removal of her ovaries, which cannot be reversed. The operation had been performed under false pretenses. The woman, who was engaged to be married and who had hoped to raise a family was "devastated," according to Torpy.
The last vestiges of legally sanctioned eugenics played out during the 1960s, when concern about overpopulation expressed by industrial leaders in the United States (most notably by members of the Rockefeller family) became official federal policy -- with massive spending to back it up -- under the Nixon administration. Sterilization for the poor and minorities was officially sanctioned in 1970, just about the time students were killed at Kent and Jackson State universities as they protested expansion of the Vietnam War. Reservation populations became targets of a policy that also was being advocated nationally, especially for poor and minority women. In 1969, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists also had relaxed its own restrictions on sterilizations.
In 1970, when the IHS initiated its sterilization campaign (paid 100 per cent by federal funds), the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare vastly accelerated programs that paid 90 per cent of the costs to sterilize non-Indian poor women, following enactment of the Family Planning Act of 1970. The rate of sterilization for women as a whole in the United States then jumped by 350 per cent in five years, according to Torpy's research.
Before 1969 (following Nixon's election as president) funding of sterilizations (as well as abortion) had been banned by the federal government. Between 1969 and 1974, HEW increased its family planning budget from $51 million to more than $250 million, Torpy found. HEW records reveal that between 192,000 and 548,000 women were sterilized each year between 1970 and 1977, compared to an average of 63,000 a year between 1907 and 1964, a period which included the zenith of the eugenics movement.
Torpy reports that during 1977 Dr. R.T. Ravenholt, director of the United States Agency for International Development (office for population control), said that the United States hoped to sterilize 25 per cent of the world's roughly 570 million fertile women. Ravenholt linked such control measures to the "...normal operation of U.S. commercial interests around the world." These statements were published in a news story in the St. Louis Dispatch.
During this wave of sterilizations, no other medical structure had the captive clientele of the IHS, however. "Native American women represented a unique class of victims among the larger population that faced sterilization and abuses of reproductive rights," Tropy wrote in her thesis. "They had, and continue to have, a dependent relationship with the federal government which has put them at greater risk..."
Within half a decade, Indian Health Service doctors were sterilizing so many reservation women that, according to Torpy, one Native American woman was being sterilized for every seven babies born.