Sunday, February 8, 2009

In Reckless Hands

One of the things I love about npr - I hear about great books to look into. And I appreciate listening to great discussions about those books. I heard about this book some time ago - I think on the Diane Riem show.

As Americans, we'd like to think that the right to have children was a part of the constitution. But it's not. Reading about forced sterilization of mental health patients, children of single parents and inmates was incredibly disturbing. The book describes a prison in Oklahoma, in the early 30s that was considering sterilization of all "habitual criminals". One person (one of the people the original case was built around) had one strike for stealing chickens.

The theory (I highly recommend reading the book yourself to better understand) was that criminal behavior and so-called feeble-mindedness could be passed on through genetics. By sterilizing criminals, we could supposedly protect our pure classes/races and wipe out criminal behavior (this was a serious argument at the time). As Nourse points out, it was moving towards a caste system here in the U.S. - something that the founders of the U.S. explicitly were fighting against.

As an aside - many people might criticize our current justice system, some for good reason. But I believe over time, thankfully, human rights have prevailed, and excesses have been stopped. I have faith that this will continue - whether or not administrations are Republican, Democrat or other. We have many things that divide us - but we have more in common than the mainstream media would lead one to believe.

I wrote about government sponsored birth control before here. That was the most interesting part of the book for me. It turns out that at one point, during the 1970s, over 100,000 women had been sterilized by fraud or coercion (p. 158) - that their welfare benefits would be cut off or that their children would not be delivered (Relf vs. Weinberger). Over half of these women were of color.

I believe that these topics absolutely need to be part of the national conversation on fertility. We need to understand where we've been - and where such policies and laws have been abused.

How can we support women and families that want to limit their families - but also prevent forced or coerced sterilization? And prevent policies that quietly support racist ideals?

One simple solution (to my mind) is to make sure that these kinds of decisions are made separately - removed from one another. The person who decides welfare benefits would be different from the person that approves voluntary birth control. We can also look to other countries, some of whom might not have these issues.


jana said...

A part of me has been feeling rather angry this week at that woman who had 8 kids via IVF after already having 6 small kids. I want to think that the gov't should prevent such women from continuing to procreate. But given the history of sterilization (and Cali was one of the worst offenders in this), I also fervently believe that the state has no right to intervene in such matters, especially because those who've been sterilized in the past were of color or were disabled. I can only imagine the outrage I would've felt if someone had told me I would need to be forcibly sterilized due to my own health history and disability.

Aerin said...

Thanks Jana. I was thinking of that mom when I drafted this post, but couldn't think of how to express my position eloquently.

I believe these types of issues are very, very difficult. I just think we need to discuss them as a society - at the same time acknowledging past mistakes. and 99.99 percent of people seem to make these types of decisions on their own, without the government or regulation getting involved.