Forced Sterilization of Native Americans: Later Twentieth Century Physician Cooperation with National Eugenic Policies?

Article excerpt

Many consider their plight an "archetypal" genocide. Others posit, however, that every essential characteristic of genocide has already been realized throughout their tragic history. A short summary of activities qualifying for genocide, each directed against disparate Native American tribes, may lend historical clarity. Centuries ago, the British suggested that they should be exterminated.1 Their soldiers proceeded to decimate them with smallpox - a virus to which native populations had no immunity. Additional efforts, literally over centuries, to eradicate their race would follow. There would be a "Trail of Tears," lethal attacks on Nez Perce men, women, and children to acquire their ancestral homeland, and the infamous massacre at Wounded Knee - to name only a few. The protracted policy directed against the United States of America's indigenous peoples represented misguided governments, widespread avarice, and enforcement by an at times ruthless, undisciplined military. When naïve efforts with smallpox and crude annihila-tions with bullets were eclipsed by scientifically sterilized technique, two twentieth century neologisms - genocide and eugenics - would be added to contemporary reflection. When the United Nations approved Resolution 96, five activities would serve as the definition for Genocide under International Law. They were: killing members of a specific group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to other members of that same group; deliberately inflicting conditions aimed directly at those persons' destruction; imposing measures to prevent births of the group's progeny; and, last, forcibly transferring children for rearing from the individuals in question to ethnically-dissimilar families.2 In this regard, the second Twentieth Century phenomenon mentioned - eugenics - has imposed measures to prevent births within many groups undergoing similar persecutions. A book by Edwin Black, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race, exhaustively studied the evolution of America's eugenics policy, which, in various guises, was exported to Germany as a template for the Third Reich's Final Solution. These immoral activities, verified by many since, should have ended after Nuremberg's deliberations. A recent, albeit weakly publicized, continuation of eugenic policy in the context of genocide has been well-documented. It has again been specifically directed towards Native Americans. The arena in question has been inhabited by the old evils of forced abortions and sterilizations. That two-pronged approach to knowingly limiting births in a targeted population had been emblematic of eugenic policy in the early to mid-Twentieth Century. Unfortunately, eugenic "birth control" had been resuscitated, or simply continued, as recently as the 1970s with voluntary physician complicity. That will be the issue before Investigation into Allegations of Forced Abortions and Sterilizations in the 1970s

When she was twenty years old, a Native American woman underwent a total hysterectomy by an Indian Health Service (I.H.S.) physician for unconvincing indications.3 Her experience came to light in the 1970s when she visited Dr. Connie Pinkerton-Uri herself a physician of Native American heritage. About the same time, two other young Native American women in Montana underwent appendectomies and also received "incidental" tubal ligations. Were these merely aberrations or the first publicized examples of a disturbing pattern? The three individuals represented, unfortunately, the "tip of an iceberg." Documentation of physician complicity in the forced sterilization of Native American women will be pursued hereafter as a serious bioethical issue that has been virtually ignored in the U.S.A., where each and every part of it took place. Mere description of the events, however, cannot stand alone. Prescriptive discourse can only proceed if those events in question are placed in the specific context of prior eugenic policy in America. …