Yes, Virginia, Your Reproductive Rights Are Compromised

Like many states where political battles about reproductive rights are front and center, Virginia is a hotbed of legislative activity. One bill seeks to end the 30-day waiting period for sterilization, a rule enforced for women with no biological or adopted children.
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Like many states where political battles about reproductive rights are front and center, Virginia is a hotbed of legislative activity. Following last year's passage of a law that requires women seeking abortions to undergo ultrasounds (which Democrats unsuccessfully attempted to repeal several weeks ago), two other bills related to women's reproductive health were introduced by committees last month.

The first proposes reparations for victims of that state's eugenic sterilization policy. Verified victims who were sterilized at the hands of the state between 1924 and 1974 would each receive $50,000 compensation. Last year a nearly identical proposal was almost fulfilled in North Carolina, but died due to eleventh hour budget wrangling, a disappointment that advocates have readdressed in the current legislative cycle. For the first time in United States history, reparations bills with proposed monetary compensation for people forcibly sterilized are making their way through two state legislatures.

The second bill introduced in Virginia's House seeks to end the 30 day waiting period for sterilization, a rule enforced for women with no biological or adopted children. The bill's author, Jennifer L. McClellan, a democratic representative from Richmond, decided to introduce the legislation after hearing the story of one of her constituents, a woman in her 30s with no children who wanted the procedure. As McClellan explains, "I believe if an adult who is capable of making a decision wants to have a sterilization procedure, there is no reason why they have to wait 30 days. Period."

The ironic twist is that the 30-day waiting period is a regulation that was formulated to guard against the kinds of reproductive abuses that occurred in the past. During the 20th century thousands of women and men were non-consensually sterilized, first under the aegis of eugenics laws, such as Virginia's sterilization law (passed in 1924 and upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1927), and later by zealous physicians at some clinics throughout the country who were concerned about over-population of the "wrong" type of people.

These two bills cut to the heart of the complexity of sterilization as a reproductive rights issue in the 21st century. The first bill acknowledges that Virginians deprived of their reproductive liberty deserve tangible compensation. The second hopes to undo barriers to reproductive decision making that many women find paternalistic and cumbersome.

The proposed reparations bill is a very heartening development given the general reluctance in the United States and other countries to monetize suffering such as forced sterilization. Even though a lump-sum payment is unlikely to heal the damage done, it nevertheless is a powerful symbolic and political step.

Furthermore, Virginia's reparations bill is part of a larger effort that includes the establishment of a museum located at the Central Virginia Training Center in Lynchburg, Virginia, where a great many of the procedures were performed. Public sites like this have played an important role in reminding people of the reach and scope of eugenics in the United States. Over the past 10 years, historical plaques commemorating victims of eugenic sterilization have been placed in meaningful civic spots in Virginia, North Carolina, and Indiana, and temporary exhibits focused on eugenics (some now digitized) have disseminated this often forgotten history.

Nevertheless, the coming of belated justice for some sterilization victims and heightened awareness of eugenics in the United States should not allow us to create a complacent sense of closure. In this country, and around the world sterilizations continue to be carried out against the wishes or knowledge of women who are vulnerable due to social, economic, racial/ethnic, and cultural status.

During the era when eugenics held much sway in the United States, roughly from the 1900s to 1950s, approximately 60,000 sterilizations were performed in 32 states. The majority of these occurred in institutions for, in the parlance of the time, the "feebleminded" and "insane," such as Virginia's Lynchburg Colony. Today many of these patients might be categorized as persons with intellectual disabilities or mental health conditions. Moreover, close historical review of the experiences and patterns of sterilizations across the country has revealed that all too often those sterilized were disadvantaged men and women who came from disrupted family situations, circumstances of poverty, or became entangled in the juvenile or court system due to minor violations such as petty theft or truancy. Initially these procedures targeted men identified as degenerate or deviant but by the 1930s -- the decade when rates rose markedly -- the gender balance tipped. From the 1950s to today, sterilization programs have affected women, above all poor women and women of color.

Forced sterilization was identified as a crime against humanity during the Nuremberg Doctor's Trial held in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Approximately 400,000 people were sterilized under Nazi Germany's 1933 Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring. In the United States in the 1970s, forced sterilizations were the impetus for major lawsuits filed on behalf of wronged women of color and for U.S. Senate hearings on human subjects and reproductive abuses. These political and legal events, coupled with the advocacy of groups such as the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse (CESA), eventually led to the formulation of regulatory safeguards such as the 30 day waiting period and informed consent protocols.

Given this history, it is tempting to cordon forced sterilization off as a practice of the past. Yet recent examples serve as correctives to this interpretation. In Peru during Alberto Fujimori's regime in the 1990s, hundreds of thousands (some estimates are as high as 400,000) of indigenous women were sterilized by tubal ligation clinics set up in rural villages as part of the government's family planning program, which was underwritten in part by international aid organizations.Indigenous women's and human rights groups seeking justice for these abuses have taken their case to the international courts where trials are pending.

In California, which led the United States in eugenic sterilization (20,000 procedures) and was home to a well-known case in which Mexican-origin women were sterilized without consent at the USC-Los Angeles County hospital in the 1970s, the legal rights group Justice Now has discovered through document requests that approximately 150 tubal ligations were performed from 2006 to 2010 on female prisoners, many during labor and delivery and without the women's direct knowledge.

Forced sterilization continues to be visible on the international horizon. Last year the European Court of Human Rights issued its ruling on the forced sterilization of Roma women in Slovakia, on whom tubal ligations were performed post-partum without consent, and the United Nations Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, reviewed several legal cases involving forced sterilization, underscoring the need to protect the reproductive integrity of people with disabilities.

Nevertheless, these continued abuses do not mean that McClellan's female constituent should have to wait 30 days to be sterilized in Virginia. Rather, they illustrate how regimes and policies of various political stripes continue to undermine and attack women's reproductive rights, whether these rights ought to entail protection against undue state intrusion or allow for unfettered access to desired health services.

Indeed, the persistence of forced sterilization is but one band on a spectrum that can include the surreptitious injection of long-term birth control (as Israel recently admitted it carried out on Ethiopian Jewish immigrants), a growing set of obstacles to obtaining reproductive health services, above all abortion, and efforts to restrict access to birth control based on financial, political, or religious rationales (such as employers refusing to cover contraception in anticipation of President Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act).

In my ideal Virginia, victims of forced sterilization will get their due and women whose right to birth control is questioned because of their maternal status will, on their own timetables, be able to obtain the reproductive health services they determine are right for them and their bodies.

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