by Katherine Ramsey
April 8th, 2021

In the United States, forced sterilizations have remained a persistent problem, especially among BIPOC communities.


According to Our Bodies Ourselves, “As early as 1907, the United States had instituted a public policy that gave the government the right ‘to sterilize unwilling and unwitting people.” Forced sterilization was “used as a means of controlling ‘undesirable’ populations,” which largely meant controlling the populations of people of color, immigrants, and those with mental health disorders.

Forced sterilization birthed from the eugenics movement, used by U.S. states to target and decide who was allowed or “desired” to reproduce. The targets of this were prominently BIPOC women. Especially during the 1920s-1980s, this targeting largely focused on Black women, giving rise in the South to the phenomenon referred to as the “Mississippi Appendectomy.” The term “Mississippi Appendectomy” was a term coined by Fannie Lou Hammer, a civil rights activist who “wanted to raise awareness to the issue due to experience of going into the hospital to have a tumor removed but was instead sterilized.” The Mississippi Appendectomy was a medical practice that involuntarily sterilized poor, Black women when they went in for a different procedure, such as an appendectomy. Additionally, according to Dorothy Roberts’s book, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, “teaching hospitals performed unnecessary hysterectomies on poor Black women as practice for their medical residents.”

While Black women were heavily targeted during the 1920s to 1980s, other ethnic and racial groups were targeted with forced sterilization. According to ThoughtCo., “more than a third of women in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico were sterilized from the 1930s to the 1970s.” Because of racial and class prejudice, Puerto Rico has one of the world’s highest sterilization rates. Similarly, a piece in the American Indian Quarterly states, “Native Americans accused the Indian Health Service of sterilizing at least 25% of Native American women who were between the ages of 15 and 44 during the 1970s.”

Despite having more prevalence in the 20th century, forced sterilization does still occur in the United States. In 2019, a Virginia obstetrician, Javaid Perwaiz, was arrested and charged for “performing unnecessary hysterectomies and removing one patient’s fallopian tubes without her knowledge.” In 2020, allegations arose that “a for-profit ICE detention center forced sterilization procedures on immigrant women.” The American Civil Liberties Union even reflects that these forced sterilizations in ICE detention centers draw a comparison to Nazi sterilization campaigns, stating, “in fact, the Nazi’s borrowed ideas for their sterilization regime from eugenic sterilization laws adopted in the U.S. in the early 20th century.”

Forced sterilization is not just an issue of the past. Examples, such as Javaid Perwaiz and ICE detention camps, remind us that the fight is not over. As we look to the future, continuing to push for civil liberties and, especially, reproductive rights - we should also look to our current state, where forced sterilization of BIPOC women & marginalized groups continues.