In 1966 I was working for the poverty program in Utah when Consuela begged one of our neighborhood workers for help. Her 16 year old daughter, herself the mother of a 2 year-old son, was a patient at the State Training Center in American Fork. The Center, a residential facility for mentally challenged youth, was located about 40 miles from the woman’s home and our neighborhood office.
For reasons I never completely understood and which were certainly not clear to Consuela, the daughter was being held against her and her mother’s will until her mother consented to her sterilization. Consuela, who spoke little English and lacked the resources to travel to American Fork was attempting to fight for her daughter long distance and losing the battle. I moved east while this was being litigated by a lawyer volunteer and stonewalled by the state so I never knew what happened, but I often thought about this as emblematic of the anti-women society in which I grew up.
Well my apologies to Utah. A few years ago John Railey, a Winston-Salem Journal reporter, unearthed the history of North Carolina’s Eugenics Board which ordered involuntary sterilization of over 7,600 citizens over a 40 plus year period. About half of the other states also followed this practice, many as late as the mid-1970s. Railey’s work resurfaced recently when the state legislature refused to compensate the 3,000 or so remaining victims of this practice, most living out virtually ruined lives.
Elaine Riddick Jessie’s story was typical of what Railey found. She was sterilized at age 14, shortly after the birth of her only child, the product of statutory rape. Another victim was Janice Black, 18 when she was sterilized because of developmental disabilities. Rita Thompson Swords, mother of two at 21, was unwed and poor, a combination that made her unfit for more children in the eyes of the Eugenics Board.
The stories are chilling on their own, but in light of the official Republican Platform, and statements and actions by Republican legislators on both the state and federal levels over the last 19 months every woman with a brain in her head should be terrified about the future of her own rights and those of her daughters and granddaughters.
Plenty has already been said about one aspect of these rights. We know that our access to both contraception and abortion are being eroded and women are increasingly facing a scenario of forced birth regardless of their economic or emotional situation, health consequences, or the manner in which they became pregnant. Paul Ryan recently called rape “just another method of conception.” This threat is clear, but the stories told by Jessie, Swords, and Black are instructive. I am beginning to wonder if forced birth is all we have to worry about.
Since we know it is possible we may soon be told we must give birth, how much of a stretch is it to imagine someone might tell us we can’t? The Eugenics Board once published glossy brochures that bragged, “North Carolina offers its citizens protection in the form of selective sterilization” and “The job of parenthood is too much to expect of feebleminded men and women.”
Swords and Jessie were deprived of their ability to be mothers because they were poor; Black for having developmental disabilities (a term that can cover everything from Autism Spectrum disorders, Cerebral Palsy, and hearing loss to intellectual disabilities and vision impairment). If these were reason enough for half of U.S. states to forcibly remove a person’s ability to reproduce, couldn’t the same be said about other perceived defects, like practicing an unsanctioned religion, getting a tattoo or being a liberal?
Even our actual as opposed to our potential parenthood could be up for grabs. A Wisconsin state senator introduced a bill in the last session to label the fact of single motherhood a contributing factor in child abuse and neglect. Three weeks ago Bryan Fisher of the American Family Association supported the concept of an underground railroad to abet the kidnapping of children from gay couples. Fisher is an odious nutcase, but he has lots of influence with other duly elected nutcases. It has been alleged that as a Mormon bishop Mitt Romney unsuccessfully pressured a young, pregnant, and unmarried member of his flock to surrender her child to the church.
Thirty-five states now require pre-abortion counseling, many mandating it be done in one of 4,000 crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs). In 2009 Kathryn Joyce wrote in The Nation that these CPCs are run by anti-abortion crusaders who have been accused of promoting “shotgun” adoptions. The centers are supported, under rules passed under the Bush administration, by an estimated $60 million in federal abstinence and marriage-promotion funds.
So, in a country less than half a century removed from legalized involuntary sterilization there are loud voices attacking contraceptive usage as wrong. We are supporting with our own tax dollars religious fanatics running thousands of CPCs which, in more than half of the states, form a gauntlet through which our access to Roe v Wade winds and where we may be pressured into becoming a baby factory for more deserving parents.
And Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan stand a good chance of controlling this cluster$%@!
You had better vote.