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Sterilisation and Eugenic Thought In The Global South Have Been Championed By White Women

Sterilisation and Eugenics In The Global South Are Championed By White Women

To picture white women carrying the mantle of racist eugenic discourse, forced sterilisation and violent action, little suspension of disbelief is required.

This essay contains discussions of scientific racism, forced sterilisation, and racist reproductive violences against people of color. 

By Adrie Rose

There is nothing new about eugenics. It’s certainly undergone rebranding, PR campaigns, re-naming, and re-working to give it a shiny new, gilded patina, but whether it’s called the social hygiene movement, the racial hygiene movement, or population control—it’s eugenics. It’s an attempt to stop the “socially ill”—the poor, the mentally ill, the houseless, drug users, and people of colour from procreating and outnumbering the inbred upper-/middle-class, well-educated white masses.

With walking, talking, moldy ham steaks like Richard Dawkins extolling the virtues of eugenics, it’s no surprise that this racist, pseudoscientific backwater is considered, almost solely, the domain of men. In fact, it feels like a concerted effort on behalf of white women to ignore and outright deny the racist history of feminism—white feminism, specifically. And while there is a certain ostrich-like quality inherent to white feminism, the denial cannot continue. Although the truth of the past has been partially buried, the roots of that evil have continued to grow, tripping up and grabbing at the bodies of unsuspecting Black and brown people simply trying to survive. The past, and how it informs the present, must be acknowledged and confronted head-on if we are to end the violent legacy of reproductive interference in the global south—most specifically Aboriginal Australia, Africa, and Southern Asia.

In 1926, the Racial Hygiene Association of New South Wales (now the Family Planning Association) was founded by Lillie Goodisson and Ruby Rich of the Women’s Reform League. Until 1928, the association was known as the Racial Improvement Society. During their tenure, Gooddisson and Rich advocated for selective breeding of future generations with particular emphasis on the elimination of hereditary defects—including mental illness, venereal disease, syphilis, a predisposition to criminal behaviour, and non-whiteness. Thanks to their literary propaganda, Australia passed legislation designed to sterilise Aboriginal and Indigenous people across the continent without their consent or knowledge. The Sexual Sterilisation Act of Alberta (1928) and the Sexual Sterilisation Act of British Columbia (1933) allowed for the forced sterilisation of all manner of social outcasts, leading the United Nations to condemn the country and its legislature for continued violations of human rights law. The Alberta act was repealed in 1972 after more than 4,000 people (most women and children of Eastern European, First Nations, and Metis descent) were surgically and permanently sterilised without their consent. The British Columbia act was repealed in 1973 after the formation of a Board of Eugenics was formed to unilaterally strip bodily autonomy from any person it deemed to have a “tendency to serious mental disease or mental deficiency”—largely Aboriginal people.

In January 2012, reports surfaced that Project Prevention, a United States-based organisation that pays drug users to use long-term, implantable birth control, was paying women in Mbita, Kenya with HIV to have IUDs implanted and had been since at least May 2011. A report detailing these allegations tells the story of women being told to sign consent forms for tubal ligation while in labour, women whose husbands signed consent forms for what they thought was a cesarean section but actually gave permission for them to be sterilised without their knowledge or consent, and women whose mothers were told that their disabilities and HIV+ would make them bad mothers, despite having already given birth. Women in their early and mid-20s whose husbands left them, sometimes taking the children, after learning that they could no longer “fulfill their duties,” women who were berated and shamed for their HIV status by doctors and nurses that refused to aid them unless they agreed to sterilisation, and women who signed documents in confusion because doctors and nurses would only speak to them in English. 

In December 2014, five Kenyan women sued the Kenyan Health Ministry, Medecins sans Frontieres, the French arm of Doctors Without Borders, and Marie Stopes International for sterilising them without their consent. Marie Stopes founded the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress to fund her building of birth control clinics across the United Kingdom. After Stopes’ death, these clinics coalesced under the umbrella known as Marie Stopes International. The first overseas location for MSI was established in New Delhi, India, carrying the dark cloud of its prior mission to “furnish security from conception to those who are racially diseased, already overburdened with children, or in any specific way unfitted for parenthood.” 

In her writings, Stopes espoused a particular hatred for mixed-race (“half-caste”) people and advocated for their sterilisation at birth (Sorry mum and dad, I guess you’ll only have cats for grandchildren if these folks get their hands on me). Stopes was contemporaries with women like Gertrude Davenport, who argued that allowing no less than 5% of the population to be “incompetent thru [sic] such bad heredity as imbecility, criminality, and disease…” cost American taxpayers around $100 million annually. Stopes and Davenport shared similar ideas as Rita Hauschild who conducted “Bastard Research” in the Caribbean between 1936 and 1937, studying “Chinese-Negro, Chinese-Indian, and Indian-Negro hybrids” in Trinidad and Venezuela. Hauschild’s work on racial identification of embryos was a particular favourite of Nazi scientists and doctors in World War II-era Germany.

An ocean away in India, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development was funneling at least £166 million ($215,995,615) to rural clinics for the purposes of birth control, despite complaints that the money would be used for forced sterilisation. Both men and women in India alleged being dragged off the street and into clinics where they were operated on by torchlight. Reports of deaths from horribly botched operations, patients thrown out onto the street still bleeding, and people miscarrying or suffering stillbirths after being ignored when they told doctors that they were pregnant. Some clinics claimed to be incentivised with promises of 1500 ₨ (rupees) for each completed sterilisation with a bonus of 500 ₨ per patient for performing more than 30 operations in a day.

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Do I think white women are actively forming organisations and non-profits with the clear aim of furthering eugenics in some dystopian plot to eradicate brown people? Not intentionally. But I think it’s very likely that white women and their supporters have internalised centuries-old ideas of white purity and the white (wo)man’s burden. To be fair, white women are not, nor have they been the sole arbiters of eugenic thought and action in the global south. The transnational movement to eradicate Black and brown bodies is nothing new, nor was it solely the domain of German Nazis as parroted in liberal circles. Buck v. Bell, a 1927 United States Supreme Court case that has never been overturned, allowed for the “compulsory sterilization of the unfit” in the interest of protecting the state. But why this enduring rage…this disdain for the reproduction of visibly non-white bodies? What engenders such a visceral reaction that the Center for Investigative Reporting found 150 cases of Latinx and Black women being sterilised in California prisons without consent? It’s fear. The fear is two-fold, but plain and simple, fear drives and has driven the need to cease “population growth” by any means necessary.

Look to the narrative of King Kong for that fear made visual. In his earliest incarnation, Kong is a slavering beast, nothing more and nothing less. He is every fear of Black male aggression come to life. Given the era of its production, it’s not surprising that the film never approaches more than a modern-day PG rating, but I always expect to see some grotesquely oversized depiction of vaguely human genitalia as Kong thrashes about. Well-endowed, blessed with endless energy, lacking the genteel restraint of their civilised white counterparts. Even the smallest display of sexual agency or interest from a Black person, real or imagined, is immediately twisted into a vile, perverse display of animalistic lust. It’s evidence of our complete lack of humanity, no matter how well-bred we are. In the 1930s, the fear stoked by Birth of a Nation (1915) was still alive and well. Dark-skinned men, literally lurking in shadows, were a scourge—stalking white women and stealing their purity away, supplanting it with literal and figurative darkness.

The fear of the hulking beast of Black sexuality is somewhat farcical, I suppose. But less comical, easier to visualise, more deeply ingrained is a very real concern that white domination will soon be usurped by the growing numbers of non-white bodies across the globe. White people are the global minority, not just in places like Asia and Africa, but in America and Europe as well. 20 years ago, non-Latinx whites were just 49.8% of the California population. The US Census Bureau predicts that the rest of the United States will follow suit in another 20 years. And white people are terrified at becoming the minority in a world they built to fulfill their needs, wants, and desires at the expense of Black and brown bodies. That terror is less associated with the horror of seeing more non-white faces in a crowd. To be sure, there is a sick fascination in white communities with rooting out those who don’t belong, those immediately identifiable as outsiders by virtue of their skin. But more than that, eugenic obsession is fueled by the idea that white people will become the minority and subsequently, the victims of retribution.

To picture white women carrying the mantle of eugenic discourse and violent action, little suspension of disbelief is required. In a world where white femininity is rewarded, coddled, and purified it’s not actually difficult to envision the beneficiaries of the same internalising the racist baggage that comes with pink pussy hats. The same world where haphazard monuments dedicated to the memory of Susan B. Anthony are erected in a mad dash to immortalise a woman prostrate before the altar of the eradication of foreign Black and brown people. Eugenic thought and action can go through a name change and a spit shine, but there will always be a “fuck it, mask off” moment where the truth will out. White women continue to unironically champion the cause of ethnic cleansing by shouldering the white woman’s burden, even though no one asked, because it is both their historical prerogative and unspoken objective. 


Further Reading:

Adrie is a Sociology grad student and freelancer living in Pittsburgh. She primarily writes about sex work, social media, race, and gender. When she’s not writing or grading, Adrie works as an artist and photographer. Her great loves include the glitter accent nail, Bojack Horseman, Disenchantment, and her two cats: Misty (15) and Oscar (5).

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