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Unpacking our Whitewashed History in the United States

Updated: Dec 24, 2023


In this blog post, I discuss the sordid, ugly history of forced involuntary sterilization in the United States. A local newspaper article about a woman named Ethel Benson inspired me to write about this heavy topic. She was institutionalized into the Delaware Colony for the Feeble-Minded facility because doctors deemed her to be "feeble-minded" and because she had the mentality of a 6-year-old child. Ethel was mercilessly sterilized against her will at what is now known as Beebe Hospital in November 1932.


Keywords: Women's history, Black History, human rights, disability rights


I want to open with a quote taken from a research article in which the Swiss Minister of Justice stated:


This quote could not be more suitable for what I am discussing. What this quote means to me in this context is that U.S. history, which spans about 400 years, has a dark, shameful past. We are still feeling its effects today. Since the U.S. was founded, brown and black communities have endured and continue to suffer horrific abuse and injustices both on an individual and systemic level. Suppose we as a society do not learn about our history in all of its unvarnished truth? We run the risk of continuing to inflict harm and trauma and living in blissful ignorance of how our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors can adversely impact marginalized communities, which has an intergenerational impact.

 

A few prime examples that come to mind are slavery, colonization, and genocide. We, as a country, have the propensity to whitewash history. Even when we learn it in school, it is mainly from a Eurocentric lens. White historical leaders, such as Abraham Lincoln, are painted to be these positive, exemplary figures who exemplified courage and strength when, in actuality, they have inflicted the most trauma on black folks through their racist ideologies. Now is the time to take an unflinching look into our country's history and to be uncomfortable with learning about the shameful atrocities that we've inflicted on marginalized communities. We can start to fully right our wrongs and take accountability when equipped with education and awareness.

A lady is holding up a pink sign during a protest. The message states: "Choice is a human right".
Choice is a human right. No question about it!

 

My goal with this blog post is to educate readers on the harmful practice of forced involuntary sterilization. As I mentioned earlier, Ethel's story inspired me to write about this sensitive topic, which stopped me in my tracks. It intrigued me and evoked a visceral response as I read it. I felt many emotions at the same time while reading her story, such as sadness, empathy, and outrage. I felt outraged for a few reasons. For starters, the medical field shrouded the practice of forced sterilizations in obscurity for far too long. Secondly, countless innocent victims, such as Ethel, were undoubtedly taken advantage of and, as a result, suffered from this irreparable, disgraceful atrocity.


According to a 2022 report published by the National Women's Law Center, about 31 states, including our nation's capital, Washington D.C., have existing laws in place that allow the practice of involuntary sterilization. The fact that it is still legally permissible by law and the current sitting Supreme Court judges have not overturned the Buck v. Bell ruling is mind-blogging for me to wrap my head around.

A lady is holding up a yellow placard in a protest. The text states: "My Body, My Choice". The green text says "ERA Yes".
My Body, My Choice

 

Upon reading the article, I knew I needed to bring this issue to light as a social justice blogger. I could not pass up the opportunity to bring awareness about this issue. It may sound a little dramatic, but I would not have been able to live with myself if I hadn't. Ethel and countless other innocent victims of forced/involuntary sterilization deserve to have their stories told. I will always be a social justice advocate. Society believed Ethel Benson to be inherently inferior because she was unwed and had two children out of wedlock. Anybody with a sound mind would think that this would be a ridiculous reason to sterilize somebody, but sadly, it was the reality back in the day. I felt queasy and unsettled to learn that the founders of Beebe Hospital in Delaware, Dr. James Beebe and his brother, Dr. Richard Beebe, were the main contributors to Ethel's sterilization and ultimate death. After learning about this information for the first time, I am against them having the Beebe Hospital named in their honor. Overall, Beebe Hospital performed over 100 involuntary sterilizations, 182 sterilizations, to be exact, from 1929 to 1938. Overall, Delaware performed about 945 sterilization operations from 1923 to 1963. Sterilization was legalized in Delaware in 1923 and was amended in 1929 to include a broader range of stigmatized groups to be sterilized, namely criminals, people with mental illness, and so forth.

A woman is holding up a sign during a protest. The sign reads: Black women's lives matter.
Black Women's Lives Matter


North Carolina was another state that ranked in third place for the enormous amount of people sterilized. In the period spanning from 1929 to 1973, a total of 7,600 individuals underwent the sterilization procedure. Black women and white women were the primary victims of sterilization. However, the rate at which black women were sterilized supersedes that of White women and men combined. For 15 years lasting from 1950 to about 1966, black women were sterilized at quadruple the rate as white men and at triple the rate as their female white counterparts. For example, in 1952 alone, white men were sterilized at a rate of only 0.43 per 10,000 people, which equates to 4300. In the same vein, white women were sterilized at a rate of 1.26 per 10,000 people, which totals 2,600. Last but certainly not least, black women were sterilized at a rate of 1.67 per 10,000 people, which comes to the staggering figure of 16,700.


As mentioned before, California was the state that produced the highest sterilization rates in the country. Similar to other U.S. states, marginalized populations were affected, and the Hispanic/Latino community was no exception. California was the second in line to implement the practice of sterilization, and it continued for about half a century until policymakers officially repealed the law in 1979. At the apex of the early 1900s, overall, women and girls were fourteen times more likely to undergo sterilization than their male peers at the hands of the hands of the state. To further disaggregate this data even more, women of Latina descent were about 60% more likely to have been sterilized during that period than their non-Latina counterparts.


On the other hand, Latino/Hispanic men in California alone were over 20% more likely than their non-Latino male counterparts to have undergone sterilization during this same period. Mary Franco was involuntarily sterilized against her will in an institutional setting. She was 13 years old when this atrocity happened to her. Another victim who suffered at the mercy of the state was Iris Lopez. She was heavily involved in the naval industry to support the military during World War II. At the tender age of 16 years old, Iris was institutionalized and sterilized against her volition.


 

Our actions often contradict our values and beliefs in this country. How can we, as a nation, confidently tout the principles of equality and justice when our minoritized brothers and sisters have endured and continue to suffer from so much pain and anguish from egregious atrocities inflicted on them since the founding of our country? I am glad that this type of history is being exposed front and center and is no longer relegated to a footnote section as it has been for the longest while. Education continues even after you graduate; learning is a lifelong journey. I continuously strive to learn more about Black history in its whole truth. It will, in turn, help me unlearn the myriad lies and inaccuracies in our 400-year history that society has brainwashed us to believe.

A lady is holding up a white poster with black text. The message says: Protect Women's Rights
Protect Women's Rights


The aftereffects of forced involuntary sterilization reverberate today. The pain and trauma that it has inflicted on countless innocent victims cannot be understated or minimized. I was never taught this type of history in my years of schooling. It makes me feel a little ashamed. I would have liked to learn this type of history while growing up in school instead of the American Revolution. Forced sterilization is a form of inter-generational trauma because its impact has rippling effects that go beyond the individual victims. Understandably, sterilization and medical experimentation have instilled a robust level of distrust for the healthcare system, primarily felt among African Americans. Our moral and ethical duty is to correct our wrongs as a society, both individually and systemically. The power of media and objective journalism is crucial. They work hand in hand together to disseminate information and to make people's stories heard.


I commend the basic steps that our country has taken to pay redress to surviving victims and their family members. Renowned law professor Paul Lombardo has claimed that only about 7 out of the 32 states are repatriating victims and their families. North Carolina and California are prime examples of two states that have already begun implementing redress measures for victims and their families as a way to apologize for the pain and anguish inflicted on them. In North Carolina, recipients are entitled to a compensation payment of $50,000 and counseling and support services for victims to heal. In California, recipients are entitled to receive monetary compensation of $25,000. CA Governor had earmarked $7.5 million to be utilized as compensation for direct victims. Other states that have not yet begun implementing redress practices for victims and families should look to North Carolina as a model to emulate. In addition to providing victims and their families monetary compensation, rehabilitation and counseling should be necessary components of redress measures. There is no amount of money in the world that can undo the impossible level of pain and anguish that sterilization has caused for thousands of people and their families. In Delaware, involuntary sterilization had been codified into law for 100 years until June 2023. This process started with a bill proposed and passed by lawmakers and signed into law by Delaware Governor John Carney this past October. Although I am pleased about the outcome, it should not have taken 100 years to repeal the sterilization law.

A group of people are protesting for equality and justice.
Fight the power!

Our actions often contradict our values and beliefs in this country. The importance of objective journalism and the media is crucial. They work hand in hand together to disseminate information and to make people's stories and perspectives heard. We must use our respective platforms to bring lesser-known stories to the forefront. You can start to put this into practice by linking the links below to sign both petitions that I have begun to give you all an opportunity to make your voices heard.


There are some ways you can be involved in eradicating this harmful practice once and for all. Please sign both of my petitions here at:



Sources:


Newman, M. (2023, October 22). Delaware dark secret sterilization. The News Journal, pp. 9A-13A.











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