1970: 25% Of Native American Women Sterilized Via A New U.S. Law
(Department of Health and Education/Wikimedia Commons)
Following the passage of an often-forgotten law called the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act of 1970, physicians sterilized at least 25% of Native American women of childbearing age, possibly even more. Throughout the early '70s, any Native woman who received health care through the Indian Health Service was targeted by this awful clandestine program. Many of the procedures were done without the knowledge of the victims, who often only found out when they tried to conceive later in life, and some women were even forced or coerced by physicians. The sterilization of Native American women finally came to light in the 2010s thanks to Jane Lawrence, a historian who tracked the procedures performed on Native women throughout the '60s and '70s.
A Reaction To Decline On Reservations
After Native Americans were placed on reservations in the 1800s, their numbers plummeted quickly. By 1900, there were fewer than 250,000 Native Americans in the country, partially thanks to a sky-high infant mortality rate resulting from conditions on the reservations. Rather than allow their people to completely disappear, many Native women had more children than they otherwise would, even if it meant compromising their own health. It's believed that these "extraordinarily high birth rates" are what kept Native Americans from disappearing completely.
"Too Many Minority Individuals"
In the 19th century, the Office of Indian Affairs built a series of bare-bones hospitals across the country that were meant to treat Native Americans. By 1950, the OIA became the Indian Health Service, and employees pushed Native women to use their hospitals and medical centers to give birth rather than planning traditional home births. Native women went along with the IHS's suggestion, and for once, the number of Indigenous women giving birth matched that of national numbers. This might seem like a good thing, but the federal government didn't think so. "Some of [the IHS doctors] did not believe that American Indian and other minority women had the intelligence to use other methods of birth control effectively and that there were already too many minority individuals causing problems in the nation," Jane Lawrence wrote.
Without Their Knowledge
Between 1970 and 1976, thousands of Native American women who went to hospitals recommended by the IHS were sterilized without their knowledge. Regardless of the procedure they thought they were undergoing, be it an appendectomy or a simple check up, somewhere around 25–50% of Native American women were rendered barren. Even after legislation was passed in 1974 to provide protections for Native women, the operations kept happening. It's impossible to put an exact date on when sterilizations ended, but they were happening at hospitals on and off reservations throughout the early- to mid-'70s. Basically, any Native woman of childbearing age who visited a doctor in those years was at risk of being harmed by the U.S. government.
(University of Rochester)
Threats And Schemes
Of the women who did agree to be sterilized, few of them did so because they truly desired a child-free life or to leave the burdens of pregnancy and diapers behind them. Many physicians who broached the topic of sterilization with their Native patients threatened to remove their access to healthcare services altogether or take away their existing children if they refused. If these people sound less like doctors than monsters, that's understandable. While some of them truly felt (wrong as they were) that they had their patients' best interests at heart, they were often subsidized by the government, so the more sterilizations they performed, the more money they made.
(National Library of Medicine)
Even though 50% is a pretty staggering number when it comes to Native women sterilized by the United States government, the alarming truth is that it could be even higher. At least 3,406 Native American women were sterilized between 1973 and 1976, and U.S. General Accounting Office admitted that sterilizations were performed in at least four of the 12 IHS service regions. The bookkeeping on these operations wasn't perfect, however, and they may have been underreported. All Native women and girls between the ages of 15 and 44 were targeted by the U.S. government, so without accurate numbers from the IHS, it's impossible to know just how many Native women were sterilized in the 1970s.
The ramifications of these forced sterilizations are still being felt today. Families fell apart, women fell into deep depressions, and the Native people may have lost a significant level of political power because of their low numbers. Many people in the Native community see the forced sterilizations as another way that the United States government has tried to remove them from their homes.
But it's not all gloomy news. In the 1980s and beyond, many Native women have found alternatives to visiting U.S.-mandated hospitals. "There's a movement now among Native women who do not want a medicalized birthing experience in any hospital ... who are trying to create alternatives that seem more culturally appropriate to them and which they view as an enactment of their bodily autonomy and sovereignty," explained Brianna Theobald, an assistant professor of history at the University of Rochester. "As a result, we see pockets of a resurgence of Native midwifery and Native doulas." Native American numbers may never recover, but the indigenous people of North America will never be pushed into obscurity.