#OurMothersToo: count with the forced sterilization of my Abuela
This article introduces our client Dawn Wooten and was originally published here.
For as far back as I can remember my grandmother, Obdulia Perez, had paper thin skin with satiny wrinkles etched deep into it. She enjoyed bingo, cooking for her family and neighbors, writing poems by hand and reading the Bible. Despite a formal education that ended in the second year, she encouraged many of her descendants, including me, to continue their education.
She was also one of more than 200,000 Puerto Rican women to be forcibly sterilized.
When Abuela boarded a public car (taxi), went to Arecibo health clinic in Puerto Rico, and was sterilized without her informed consent when she was 40 years old. At that age, she already had four growing children – a robust family worthy of her – which makes the government-backed operation only moderately devastating to her personal dreams. But the average age for sterilization in Puerto Rico at the time was 26, and many women – with fewer children, if any – came to regret the irreversible procedure.
Indeed, although Abuela was unique in my heart, she was one of many when it came to sterilization. In 1954, the year of its operation, the population control program run by the state of Puerto Rico was gaining momentum. By 1974, tubal ligation became so ubiquitous on the island that more than a third of its wives had received the operation– giving Puerto Rico the highest sterilization rate in the world.
What does forced sterilization look like? In Abuela’s case, it was like accepting cash vouchers from clinicians (“They always throw a candy to catch you,” Abuela will later say) for giving their consent to a doctor. transient form of family planning. I guess the silence Abuela clung to for decades around this incident was, in part, due to guilt. She had, after all, consented to most of it-just not the permanent part. Accepting money may have made that guilt worse, although such inducements are now part of what defines coercion. So, in a way, maybe Abuela felt complicit in her own dupe and embarrassed by it. I also wonder if his silence was based on survival and well-being, so as not to stir up the lingering grief or trauma of the forced process.
Whatever the reason, we’ve heard from her surgery only by chance, more than two decades after this happened. While giving her a therapeutic scoliosis massage, my mother saw a small scratch on Abuela’s abdomen. “What’s that scar?” Mom asked, and Abuela was reluctant to answer: the operation. Without this chance, Abuela might have taken her secret to the grave.
Despite extensive documentation, few people know the prolific history of mass sterilization in the United States. In 1907, Indiana led the charge, enacting the world’s first mass sterilization law. Thirty other states have followed suit. More than 20,000 California residents were sterilized between 1909 and 1963. In Mississippi, the procedure was common enough to deserve a nickname: Mississippi appendectomy. While many surgeries were carried out through deceptive tactics like those used on Abuela, forced surgeries were also widespread. A woman may go to the hospital for unrelated surgery and find years later that her uterus has also been removed. A mother who had just given birth could be denied contact with her newborn baby until she consented to tubal ligation. A child institutionalized for depression or poverty can be anesthetized and operated on without any explanation.
Why were states so eager to penetrate women’s bodies like this? The colonial government of Puerto Rico has blamed an impending population explosion, despite data showing a healthy population. The North Carolina Eugenics Council said sterilization offered “humane and practical protection against threatened racial degeneration.” Meanwhile, California forms allowed operations due to “weak-mindedness.”
The “license” was a rationale oftentimes given, reminding us of the real roots and harsh results of slut shame. It does not matter if the girl (many who had underage operations) became pregnant with sexual violence.
Whatever the reasons given, the reality of the sterilized person had some points in common. They were disproportionate black women. In California, Latin American and Asian residents have been targeted. Indian health services performed thousands of forced and forced sterilizations in the 1970s on tribal members across the country. It is difficult to come across the data without feeling that these campaigns were elimination efforts.
So far I have used past tense verbs, but unfortunately the present tense also applies. As recently as 2014, the number of women forcibly sterilized in California Women’s Prison numbered in the thousands. A pending class action lawsuit filed by 80 Saskatchewan women in Canada lists forced sterilizations as recent as last year.
For bringing these stories to light, we have to thank whistleblowers like Helen Rodriguez TrÃas, the Puerto Rican doctor who received a Presidential Citizens Medal for her work in public health. Or Connie Pinkerton-Uri, a Choctaw and Cherokee physician whose 1974 study found that one in four Native American women had been sterilized without her consent. Most recently, Dawn Wooten, a nurse at an ICE detention center, witnessed unnecessary reproductive organ harvesting from detainees and made public what she witnessed at the hands of a single surgeon: âMy God, he takes everybody’s stuff out. It is his specialty, he is the uterus collector.
For some victims, speaking out has brought some healing, while stoking the hidden loss and unseen grief that accompanies them throughout their lives. We must honor the courage of people like Elaine Riddick, Consuelo Hermosillo and Willis Lynch who never applied for this position. While the data can be alternately sickening and numbing, their personal testimony reminds us of individual losses: it’s lineages ending, ancestral wisdom disappearing, and oral histories falling silent.
As an adult woman, I came to understand the difference between birth control and population control. Birth control, my individual right, means having information, choices and full power over my reproductive life and family planning. Population control is a social policy claiming moral authority to decide who deserves to populate this planet.
To be a writer is to believe in the power to bear witness. We can fight back and seek redress, at least in part, by spreading the word. Let us educate ourselves, confront this dark history and understand its continued closeness to our matriarchs and our communities. Let’s step into the light and say #OurMothersToo.