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.