Sometimes in the course of my research, I’ll find an article that has nothing to do with my subject at hand but that still piques my interest. I opened this article from 1914, “Sterilization of the Unfit” by J. Miller Kenyon and now I’m totally riled up.
First of all, don’t forget that eugenics started here in the U.S. Hitler admired our use of it and emulated us (to a genocidal degree, ultimately) in Nazi Germany. But don’t get it twisted: we were doing it both before Hitler AND AFTER.
In the 1960s, civil rights activist (and a personal hero of mine) Fanny Lou Hamer called forced sterilization a “Mississippi Appendectomy” because of its grossly common application in that state, but it happened throughout the country, continuing through the 1980s in some locations. Typically, recipients of such procedures had no say in the matter—if they were made aware of it at all.
Most of those affected were mentally ill, unhealthy, or in prison. Black citizens and other minority groups (especially Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans in California), the poor, and people with disabilities suffered disproportionately from this outrage against basic human rights. Many instances of forced sterilization occurred in charity hospitals and sanitariums, where a patient’s inability to pay for medical services amounted to (in the eyes of many physicians) a surrender of personal control over one’s health to hospital authorities. As if their poverty was a direct corollary of intellectual inadequacy, charity patients were rarely included in important decisions regarding their medical treatment. Additionally, racial prejudice was central to eugenics, so many doctors carrying out such procedures on non-white patients assumed them to be intellectually inferior by nature and thus incapable of making decisions about their reproductive systems. Furthermore, physicians often felt that if a person came to get free care, they should be willing to accept whatever decisions the generous providers of such care deemed appropriate. (This was even the case at the august Johns Hopkins’ charity ward, as outlined in the fantastic book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.) In other words, the powerlessness of the poor led to the denial of their personal autonomy.
Continuing ramifications of actions and attitudes that echo from the not-so-distant past include ongoing suspicion of the medical establishment in many communities, with the tragic results that the lack of preventive medical care exacerbates health problems for many poorer, alienated citizens. Combined with the prohibitive cost of healthcare, this mistrust of the medical establishment has aided in widening the lifespan gap between black and white, rich and poor, as well as a reduced quality of life for the worst-off Americans. As such:
For all Americans, the average life expectancy again nudged up…reaching 78 years and two months according to preliminary figures from the Centers for Disease Control. But black Americans saw no improvement in life expectancy, remaining at 74 years and three months.
P.S. THIS IS Fanny Lou:
[For more, see:
Fit to Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939 by Natalia Molina (I highly recommend this book)
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