Latinas were targeted for involuntary sterilizations for decades

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Today we are reminded that pro-choice politics are as much about the right to reproduce as they are about the right to abortion. We are also reminded of our country’s history of taking away the right to reproduce of so many women of color.

A new report put out by the University of Michigan has found that Latin@s* were disproportionately targeted for involuntary sterilization under the U.S. eugenics movement. Between 1909 and 1979, Latin@s made up 20-30% of the 60,000 people who were coercively sterilized in the U.S., mostly in mental institutions in California. The majority of these people were women who were labeled as “bad girls” or “sexually wayward”: in other words, women who didn’t follow the strict social norms set forth at the time.

Eugenics was a movement of pseudoscience that started in the early 1900s in the U.S., and eventually inspired the Holocaust. Eugenicists wanted to breed out “genetically inferior” traits, most of which we now know not to be genetic. Back then, anyone who wasn’t able-bodied, straight, white, mentally healthy, cisgendered, or sexually conservative was a potential target for forced sterilization. Criminals were also considered unfit to reproduce, as eugenicists believed criminality to be a trait one could pass on to one’s children.

Considering what we now know about how the criminal justice program targets people of color, and the structural inequities that might lead  people to commit crimes, it makes sense that so many of those forcibly sterilized were women of color. The report notes that “Many of the women sterilized in California were of Mexican origin, came from families disrupted by trans-border migratory patterns and had limited access to education.” 

This pattern of criminalizing or sterilizing women of color continued on for decades, and left a lasting legacy on reproductive politics today. After the mental hospital sterilizations, Mexican-American women were sterilized in a Los Angeles hospital in the 1970s, around the same time that Puerto Rican working-class women were being sterilized by the hundreds of thousands.

Today, Latinas’ reproductive choice is still under attack, whether it be through bills requiring hospital workers to police immigration status, prohibiting undocumented people from accessing healthcare, or preventing a mythological onslaught of “anchor babies.” Well-respected institutions like the Heritage Foundation still publish authors who believe that Latin@s naturally have a lower IQ than white people.

For many women, reproductive choice isn’t just about living in a country where abortion is (at least for now) legal. For many women, reproductive choice is also about living in a country where they have the right to have as many children as they desire without being shamed or punished. It’s about having access to the resources both to terminate or prevent unwanted pregnancies but also to feed, house and educate wanted children.

*Wondering why I write “Latin@s” instead of “Latinos?” Because the “@” incorporates both the masculine ending “o” and the feminine ending “a.” Latin@s is more inclusive by acknowledging both men and women.

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