Fit to Be Tied: Sterilization and Reproductive Rights in America, 1950-1980

Fit to Be Tied: Sterilization and Reproductive Rights in America, 1950-1980

Fit to Be Tied: Sterilization and Reproductive Rights in America, 1950-1980

Fit to Be Tied: Sterilization and Reproductive Rights in America, 1950-1980

Synopsis

The 1960s revolutionized American contraceptive practice. Diaphragms, jellies, and condoms with high failure rates gave way to newer choices of the Pill, IUD, and sterilization. Fit to Be Tied provides a history of sterilization and what would prove to become, at once, socially divisive and a popular form of birth control.

During the first half of the twentieth century, sterilization (tubal ligation and vasectomy) was a tool of eugenics. Individuals who endorsed crude notions of biological determinism sought to control the reproductive decisions of women they considered "unfit" by nature of race or class, and used surgery to do so. Incorporating first-person narratives, court cases, and official records, Rebecca M. Kluchin examines the evolution of forced sterilization of poor women, especially women of color, in the second half of the century and contrasts it with demands for contraceptive sterilization made by white women and men. She chronicles public acceptance during an era of reproductive and sexual freedom, and the subsequent replacement of the eugenics movement with "neo-eugenic" standards that continued to influence American medical practice, family planning, public policy, and popular sentiment.

Excerpt

The 1960s ushered in a revolution in American contraceptive practice. The introduction of the birth control pill (the Pill) in 1960 and the redesign and return of the intrauterine device (IUD) in 1964 offered women contraception that was nearly 100 percent effective. No longer forced to rely upon messy diaphragms, jellies, and condoms with high failure rates, the IUD and the Pill offered women reliable birth control that did not interfere with the sex act. Contraceptive sterilization—tubal ligation and vasectomy—offered the same benefits, and between 1965 and 1975 this surgery gained public and medical acceptance as a legitimate and cost-effective method of birth control. By 1975, 7.9 million Americans had undergone sterilization, and sterilization had become the most popular method of contraception used by married couples.

Before it became a popular method of birth control, sterilization was a tool of eugenics, the science of racial betterment that developed in America around the turn of the twentieth century. Most early eugenicists endorsed a rather crude notion of biological determinism that deemed mental, physical, and behavioral “defects” to be genetic and unalterable. Eugenicists believed poverty, criminality, illegitimacy, epilepsy, feeblemindedness, and alcoholism (among others) were inherited traits that could not be altered. Concerned about the quality of American citizens during a period of mass eastern and southern European immigration, industrialization, and urbanization, eugenicists sought to control the quality and quantity of the American population in order to prevent the country from being overrun by the “unfit.” By emphasizing the “natural” aptitude of white, native-born Americans, eugenicists sought to preserve this group’s social, economic, and political power. Biological determinism naturalized . . .

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