Project Censored’s top 10 stories show old patterns alive and well

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click to enlarge ANSON STEVENS-BOLLEN
Anson Stevens-Bollen

10. Activists Call Out Legacy of Racism and Sexism in Forced Sterilization

Forced sterilization was deemed constitutional in a 1927 Supreme Court decision, Buck v. Bell, after which forced sterilizations increased dramatically, to at least 60,000 forced sterilizations in some 32 states during the 20th Century, predominantly targeting women of color. And while state laws have been changed, it’s still constitutional, and still going on today — with at least five cases of women in ICE custody in Georgia in 2019 — while thousands of victims await restitution, as reports from the Conversation and YES! Magazine has documented.

“Organizations such as Project South, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, and the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab are actively working to document the extent of this underreported problem — and to bring an end to it.” Project Censored noted. But their work is even more underreported than the problem itself.

“During the height of this wave of eugenics by means of sterilization in the U.S., forced hysterectomies were so common in the Deep South that activist Fannie Lou Hamer coined the term ‘Mississippi Appendectomy’ to describe them,” Ray Levy Uyeda wrote in a YES! Magazine article, “How Organizers are Fighting an American Legacy of Forced Sterilization,” which begins with the story of Kelli Dillon. Dillon was a California prison inmate in 2001 when she underwent a procedure to remove a potentially cancerous growth — and the surgeon simultaneously performed an unauthorized hysterectomy, one of 148 forced sterilizations that year in California prisons, and one of 1,400 carried out between 1997 and 2010.

Dillon began organizing inside the women’s prison gathering testimonials from other victimized prisoners “and provided the personal accounts to staff at Justice Now that was laying the groundwork to petition for legislation that would ban the procedures in prisons,” Uyeda reported. She eventually sued the state of California for damages, and helped to shape legislation to compensate victims (finally passed this year) a story told in the 2020 documentary film, Belly of the Beast.

"All forced sterilization campaigns, regardless of their time or place, have one thing in common. They involve dehumanizing a particular subset of the population deemed less worthy of reproduction and family formation," Alexandra Minna Stern wrote at the Conversation. Stern directs the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab, where "Our interdisciplinary team explores the history of eugenics and sterilization in the U.S. using data and stories" — 35,000 of them so far captured from "historical records from North Carolina, California, Iowa and Michigan."

The history was more complicated than one might expect, Stern explained. “At first, sterilization programs targeted white men, expanding by the 1920s to affect the same number of women as men. The laws used broad and ever-changing disability labels like ‘feeblemindedness’ and ‘mental defective.’ Over time, though, women and people of color increasingly became the target, as eugenics amplified sexism and racism,” she wrote. “It is no coincidence that sterilization rates for Black women rose as desegregation got underway.”

“California Latinas for Reproductive Justice is working to secure legislative change for victims of the state’s sterilization efforts between 1909 and 1979,” Uyeda wrote. It was signed into law after Project Censored’s book went to print, making California the third state with such legislation, following the lead of North Carolina and Virginia, in 2013 and 2015, respectively.

“The history of eugenics has been thoroughly researched and criticized by scholars and human rights activists, but coverage by the corporate media of the US practice of forced sterilization throughout the 20th century and into the 21st has tended to be limited and narrowly focused,” Project Censored noted. There was some corporate news coverage after the ICE forced sterilization stories emerged, but generally without “any mention of the activists resisting the practice. … Some establishment press articles on the topic of forced sterilization include comments from members of these organizations to provide context on the issue, but few spotlight the groups’ tireless organizing and record of accomplishments.” Two exceptions cited were articles from Marie Claire magazine and Refinery29, “a website targeted at younger women.” This only began to change in July 2021, as Project Censored’s book was going to print, “with the Associated Press and other establishment news outlets reporting that California is preparing to approve reparations of up to $25,000 per person to women who had been sterilized without consent.”

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