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Sterilization of Black women is nothing new

By Tamerra Griffin | 7/18/2013, 2:41 p.m. | Updated on 7/18/2013, 2:41 p.m.

During that time, the U.S. also approved sterilizations of women in Puerto Rico after acquiring the island as a commonwealth in 1898. In response to fears of rapid population growth and economic distress in Puerto Rico, the U.S. government enacted a law in 1937 that denied women the opportunity to receive information about alternative contraceptive methods and allowed physicians to sterilize them without asking the women’s permission. By 1968, more than 30 percent of the female population in Puerto Rico had been sterilized.

As the injustices continued into the 1970s, the idea of cleansing the world of its unwanted citizens morphed to mean, almost exclusively, preventing Black women from becoming mothers.

In 1972, a group of medical students in New England spoke out against these unethical practices. The Boston Globe published a front-page story that year exposing the Boston City Hospital for its disproportional use of African-American women as the subjects of hysterectomy operations for medical students.

Alabama was the site of a controversial sterilization case the following year. Minnie and Mary Alice Relf, 12 and 14 years old, respectively, went in for what they thought was a routine birth control injection. The sisters, both African-American, were also mentally disabled. Without their knowledge or consent, a physician sterilized the girls. The Relf sisters’ mother was also uninformed of the procedure. She was illiterate and was manipulated into agreeing to her daughters’ sterilization by marking a collection of paperwork with an “x,” which counted as her signature. The ensuing court case, Relf v. Weinberger, resulted in the district court outlawing the use of federal funds for the sterilization of unknowing patients.

Since then, feminist and human rights organizations across the country have mobilized to prevent the repetition of this dark history; the Women in Prison Project in New York is but one. Kraft-Stolar talked about the different initiatives WIPP has afforded to women in New York over the years, particularly ones that educate them about their health.