The Sterilization and Social Justice Lab is an interdisciplinary research team studying the history of eugenic sterilization in the United States. Our multi-institutional team includes historians, epidemiologists, and digital humanists. We explore patterns and experiences of eugenics and sterilization in the 20th century using mixed methods from the social sciences, humanities, and public health. Initially focused on California, our project now includes Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, and Utah. We connect this history to reproductive, disability, and racial justice, as we reflect on the relevance of the past to social justice today.
SSJL Statement condemning the Dobbs decision and upholding the continued struggle for Reproductive Justice
June 28, 2022
As co-directors of the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab we condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the majority decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. This ruling ushers in a new era of reproductive oppression in the United States and endangers the reproductive bodies, lives, and futures of all people.
The research and analysis produced by our lab builds on the framework of reproductive justice—a framework that affirms reproductive and familial autonomy. Much of our work examines eugenic and compulsory sterilization as a violent state practice of reproductive oppression that has stripped people of their human right to have children. We view the overturning of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and the impending mass denial of abortion and reproductive health care as part and parcel of a “complex matrix of reproductive oppression” that also has encompassed sterilization abuse.1
From 1907 to 1937, 32 U.S. states passed eugenic sterilization laws, empowering authorities to sterilize people based on a wide range of racist, ableist, homophobic, and classist notions of “unfitness.” In 1927, in the infamous Buck v. Bell decision, the Supreme Court affirmed states’ rights to sterilize in the interest of “public welfare,” thereby legitimizing this practice nationally. Not all states passed eugenic sterilization laws, and some used the laws sparingly. Others, like California and North Carolina, implemented eugenic sterilization zealously. Ultimately, based on these laws, in the 20th century, over 60,000 people were stripped of their bodily autonomy and denied the right to make basic reproductive decisions. Moreover, in the 1960s and 1970s, tens of thousands of women of color and poor women were subjected to unwanted sterilization procedures in public hospitals and clinics, spurring lawsuits, congressional hearings, and activism against forced sterilization.
Informed by white supremacy and ableism, eugenic sterilization programs disproportionately harmed the marginalized and dispossessed. These practices worked to further white supremacy through reproductive control, preventing the procreation of the “unfit” and encouraging white middle-class pronatalism. Notably, 20th century eugenicists were driven by the same demographic anxieties about “race suicide” that embolden white nationalists today. White supremacy has fueled the contemporary anti-abortion movement, and increasing violence against abortion providers has been linked to white supremacists and other extremist organizations. It's not surprising that mere days after the Dobbs decision, a MAGA supporter described the decision as a “victory for white life.”
With the Dobbs decision, the Supreme Court not only decimates a long-held constitutional right but also reenacts the logic and harms of the eugenics era by depriving people of the right to make fundamental reproductive decisions and putting them at the mercy of state legislatures, many of which are gripped with an extremist patriarchal fervor. As Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan rightly point out in their dissent (and as has historically been the case whenever and wherever abortion has been criminalized),2 women of means will obtain abortions regardless of their state’s laws. Others seeking to terminate a pregnancy, including low-income people, people of color, incarcerated people, undocumented people, disabled people, and people experiencing a plethora of other circumstances, will be subjected to the legal and geographical barriers being erected and codified throughout the country today.
At their core, both eugenic sterilization and anti-abortion laws are about denying bodily, reproductive, and familial autonomy and disproportionately constrain the reproductive freedom of marginalized groups. When Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, the courts affirmed the individual right to decide whether or not to have children. Roe came with limitations and did not eliminate social and economic barriers to abortion, but it was a major win for reproductive rights and women’s health and a bulwark against anti-abortion absolutism. We are devastated to see the decision overturned.
During this moment of grief over the end of Roe, we uphold our commitment to reproductive justice and to ensuring that all people have the freedom and resources to decide not to have a child, have a child, and raise that child in a safe, supportive, and equitable environment.
Nicole L. Novak
Alexandra Minna Stern
1 Loretta Ross in Radical Reproductive Justice: Foundations, Theory, Practice, Critique (The Feminist Press, 2017), 62. For more on reproductive justice see: Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (Patheon Books, 1997); Loretta Ross, Elena Gutiérrez, Marlene Gerber, and Jael Silliman, Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organizing for Reproductive Justice (Haymarket Books, 2016); Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger, Reproductive Justice: An Introduction (University of California Press, 2017); and Patricia Zavella, The Movement for Reproductive Justice: Empowering Women of Color Through Social Activism (NYU Press, 2020).
2 See, for example, Leslie Reagan, When Abortion was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973 (University of California Press, 1998); Alicia Gutierrez-Romine, From Back Alley to the Border: Criminal Abortion in California, 1920-1969 (University of Nebraska Press, 2020); and Jennifer Holland, Tiny You: A Western History of the Anti-Abortion Movement (University of California Press, 2020).