Eugenics as U.S. Nationhood: Situating Population Control in a Settler State

About Aviva Galpert

This post is the third in my series examining the U.S. Right’s efforts to alter demographic trends by re-popularizing arguments and ideologies rooted in eugenics. (Read part one and part two.) Today, I continue to discuss the U.S. Right’s coercive attempts to limit the fertility of people of color, an egregious affront to reproductive justice. This segment addresses U.S. initiatives undertaken to limit Native American women’s reproductive autonomy.

In my last post, I discussed right-wing nativists’ efforts to establish a two-tiered citizenship structure, which would institutionalize discrimination against and disenfranchisement of people of color. While this redefinition of citizenship has not gained legal ground, comparable institutions proliferate in the U.S.

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Indeed, it is important to acknowledge that the United States itselfnot only the structures it creates and upholdsis such a system. Superimposed as it was, and is, on land once shared by tens of millions, this country is a settler colonial state and a necessarily genocidal project: as Cavanagh and Veracini explain, “settlers want Indigenous people to vanish.” In the United States, this aim has been largely (though certainly not entirely) realized, and sterilization has been among the means of effecting it.

The genocidal practices undertaken during the formation of the U.S. are well documented and fairly well known, as are some of those implemented in the 19th and early 20th centuries. More contemporary iterations of the U.S. genocidal project are less widely known, due in part to the widespread misconception that Native Americans have long been virtually extinct.

Between 1973 and 1976, the Indian Health Servicea federal programsterilized more than 3,406 Native American people who could become pregnant. Dozens of those sterilized were under 21, contrary to a moratorium on sterilizing minors. From 1969 to 1974 (coinciding with President Nixon’s term), the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) subsidized a full 90 percent of the costs of these sterilizations (Ralstin-Lewis). Many were sterilized against their will; moreover, a substantial portion of the providers lacked documentation attesting to fully informed consent. As researchers Jane Lawrence and D. Marie Ralstin-Lewis show, the consent forms the patients signed were often incomplete, and many did not indicate that they had a right to refuse the procedure at no risk of losing benefits. Nor is it evident from any of the forms later evaluated by the U.S. General Accounting Office that providers had fully informed their patients of what sterilization entailed. They certainly did not make a compelling effort to overcome cultural barriers in explaining the procedure. Additionally, consent is difficult to ascertain in light of the circumstances in which Native patients found themselves; the dire poverty inflicted by the United States, constant infringements on sovereignty, and concerted efforts to uproot indigenous cultures shape a landscape in which white doctors could coerce their Native patients in highly subtle ways.

Both Lawrence and Ralstin-Lewis also stress the significance of Native Americans’ ability to have children in the face of continuing efforts to exterminate them. Ralstin-Lewis reports specifically on extensive investigations undertaken by Native Americans. Cheyenne tribal judge Marie Sanchez and Northern Cheyenne tribal member Mary Ann Bear Comes Out concluded that in just three years, a full third of the mere 165 women of childbearing age on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation and Labre Mission grounds had been sterilized, “reducing births within this group by half or more over a five-year period” (82). This devastating statistic is representative of what many tribes experienced: a Lakota researcher named Lehman Brightman devoted many years to investigating the sterilizations of Native American women and found that approximately forty percent of all Native women had been sterilized (Ralstin-Lewis).

It would be reductive to attempt to identify the U.S. government’s discrete motivations for reducing the Native American population, which cannot be understood outside the context of settlement and genocide. However, it is worth noting that while many of the arguments put forward for limiting immigrants’ reproductive agency are manifestly inapplicable to Native American populations, some of the explicit justification is the same. Specifically, proponents and practitioners of sterilization frame it as an investment, contending (sometimes implicitly) that when certain people do not have children, the money saved in welfare expenditures will offset the cost of sterilization. The welfare state is a ubiquitous trope in right-wing rhetoric surrounding issues of poor women of color’s reproductive autonomy. Ralstin-Lewis comments, “The noncompliant female body has become the central point of contention for conservative fury about the welfare state” (89).

The conflation of certain bodies with welfare costs, which is inextricable from the degradation of welfare itself, is a means of normalizing and obscuring racism and sexism. The construction of these bodies as burdensome allows bigotry to be couched in ostensibly pragmatic arguments against unnecessary spending. Meanwhile, welfare is seen as objectionable and unnecessary because it is associated with marginalized people. Prejudice is thus woven invisibly through the fabric of public opinion.

This is consistent with Thomas W. Volscho’s thesis that “sterilization racism” is a function of the U.S. having been organized around white supremacy. Volscho uses Cazenave and Maddern’s definition of racism as “…a highly organized system of race-based group privilege that operates at every level of society and is held together by a sophisticated ideology of color/race/supremacy,” theorizing that the hierarchy this produces will give those at the top control over or influence within the institutions determining their reproductive abilities (such as health care providers), while those at the bottom will be subject to the whims of the same institutionsand those of others intended specifically to constrain them (19). (This too is part of the colonial project, which necessitates that those in power be able to manage the bodies of those they subjugate.) The next installment of this series will give an overview of ways in which constraining institutions, including the carceral system, have targeted Black women’s reproductive freedom.

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Aviva Galpert was a 2014 Summer reproductive justice intern at PRA, and served as our interim Program Coordinator in 2015. She studies Social Thought & Political Economy and English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.