Academic journal article Social Justice

The Lost Generation: American Indian Women and Sterilization Abuse

Academic journal article Social Justice

The Lost Generation: American Indian Women and Sterilization Abuse

Article excerpt

   I had been sterilized at the age of eleven, at the IHS [Indian
   Health Service I hospital here in the early 1950s. I got married
   in the 1960s and I went to the doctor and he told me that I had
   a partial hysterectomy. [When I was a child] they were giving us
   vaccinations and mine got infected and a nurse came and gave me
   some kind of shot so I wouldn't hurt. When I woke up my stomach
   was hurting and I was bleeding (Woman speaking on radio show,
   "Native America Calling," 2002).

NEITHER THIS WOMAN NOR HER PARENTS HAD CONSENTED TO THE STERILIZATION procedure. Many Native women have such stories about being sterilized, either without their consent or through coercive means. Although voluntary sterilization is a popular, safe, and reliable form of birth control for many women, the unauthorized use of sterilization procedures on marginalized women constitutes abuse. Furthermore, numerous women in countries outside the United States have faced sterilization abuse.

Various ideologies have contributed to the involuntary sterilization of women, especially women of color. Imperialism, capitalism, patriarchy, and Malthusianism have shaped social and socioeconomic standards by which many women and their fertility are valued. As capitalism and industrialization have expanded, so too has international interest in fertility control of "lower-class" people. The United States filters monies through agencies such as U.S. Agency for International Development, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Ford Foundation for population control programs. These agencies were responsible for the sterilization of men and women in regions such as Puerto Rico, Brazil, Guatemala, Africa, and Panama (Mass, 1976). Some abuses continue today. "More than 20 years since testimony against the practice at the United Nations, Indigenous women in Mexico and other Latin American nations are still routinely sterilized without their consent" (Giago, 2000: A5).

Likewise, colonialism intersected with patriarchy to directly threaten American Indian women through sterilization abuse. Scholars, such as Lisa Poupart and Andrea Smith, have examined the ramifications of colonialism and oppression on Indigenous women's bodies, reproductive health, and lives. Poupart (2002) discusses the devastating impact of Western European and American historical domination and oppression on American Indians, which has created and perpetuated injustices throughout Indian Country. The continued political, social, and economic oppression has left American Indian people, especially women, vulnerable to systematic abuse--in this case Indian Health Services (IHS). Paternalistic policies toward American Indians allow the federal government to make decisions on their behalf without their full consent or participation. "Just as a father makes decisions for his children, then, the oppressive structures within patriarchy--particularly those of state bureaucracies and multinational corporations--and those individuals acting as vehicles of authority make decisions for those groups deemed in need of guidance" (Poupart, 1996: 5). Furthermore, Smith (2003) points out that Native women threaten colonial structures through their ability to reproduce the next generation of colonial resistance.

The state and mainstream U.S. society justify themselves in the encroachment upon the private lives of Native women by assuming control over their right to make their own decisions concerning their lives and their bodies. This encroachment has a double-edged blade. One side carries a sharpened edge that has cut away at women's right and ability to bear children, our next generation. It has inflicted invisible abuse and violence upon America Indian women and their cultures and communities because we cannot look at each other and know who has been sterilized. The other edge of the blade is silence. Sterilization abuse has silenced Indian women's voices through fear and shame. …

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