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Involuntary Sterilisation in the United States

On Tuesday morning, Twitter user auntie crissle (@crissles) posed the following question to her followers: ‘Do you think people currently on govt assistance (welfare, food stamps, section 8, TANF, etc) should be allowed to have additional children?…Meaning if you are receiving services and choose to have another baby, the gov’t will reduce or eliminate the aid you receive.’ She was rewarded with a flood of comments in response to her provocative statement, and tried to cover her tracks with another Tweet: ‘I don’t know why people are arguing with me like I expressed an opinion one way or the other about it.’

Aside from the fact that she disingenuously acted astounded when people responded to the question she’d posed, she highlighted a number of critical issues in the United States, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps with full awareness.

The very way she framed the question was loaded; whether or not she wants to admit it, she actually was expressing an opinion, with that word ‘allowed,’ which is quite evocative. Language about whether ‘the poor’ as a collective entity should be ‘allowed’ or ‘permitted’ to have children has been rife in US social policy for over 100 years, and that’s not a word that should be used lightly. That she seemed to visualise the government enforcing this in terms of a monetary penalty rather than in forced sterilisation or birth control, or as some of her respondents feared, forced abortion, was no less telling of where she was coming from: a world in which the reproductive rights of poor people should be legitimately debated.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, she got numerous responses supporting the idea that low-income people shouldn’t be ‘allowed’ to have children on assistance: ‘ABSOLUTELY NOT.’ ‘…the problem is that there’s no way to stop them from having more kids.’ ‘My mom has worked for DHS for 25 years. She has always said that there’s a great need for involuntary sterilization.’ ‘ I work and just have 1 and I know I wouldn’t have more if I couldn’t afford it. It’s unfair for one to have many and others pay.’

‘If you on assistance that means you need help right?? If you need help why have another child?? I think its common sense..’ ‘loaded question. As a social worker for DHS, I do feel there should be a limit only when it appears to be reckless.’ ‘What is the point of having a baby if you know damn well you can’t afford to take care of it’

Some straddled the fence, offering judgments on behaviour but trying to shy away from outright saying that low-income people should be punished for having children: ‘Yes. I don’t think it’s “smart,” but if people on other forms of assistance (unemployment, federal grants, etc.) can? They can.’ ‘This is punishing the majority for the sins of the minority. People take advantage but the majority need the assistance.’

Others seemed to think that restrictions on aid should be built into the system, but weren’t quite willing to commit themselves to admitting that they don’t think poor people should breed: ‘Sure. Have as many children as you want. But the amount of assistance they receive should be limited. Or ‘policed’ in a sense.’ ‘I think they should [be allowed], but their funds shouldn’t increase.’ ‘Like instead of upping the assistance with every child, try capping it regardless of the amount of children.’ ‘They should throw a cap on that shit. You need aid? Stop laying down and having so many fucking kids.’

One user pointed out that this hypothetical is already a reality in some places: ‘in GA u have 2 sign a form upon receipt of assistance staying if u have more kids while on assistance u benefits won’t change’

And a handful seemed willing to actually commit to reproductive rights for low-income people: ‘IMO, ppl should be able to have children as they please. I believe sex education & women’s repro healthcare is more a root issue.’ ‘Also, lots of folks place blame solely on women. Men go unscathed. Many women are on assistance b/c child support isn’t being paid’ ‘Do the ppl who think their should be a cap consider the disadvantage it will be to the children or just the parents?’ ‘…you’re using social policy to subject children to deeper poverty because you don’t like their parents choices.’

She must be given credit for retweeting a broad selection of opinions; these are all drawn from her own Twitter feed. But where she doesn’t get credit is for entertaining a ‘debate’ that really just reinforced the status quo. This is a conversation that happens over and over again in the United States.

Numerous people in the United States believe that women take advantage of public assistance to ‘work the system,’ popping out children for their benefits cheques. The ‘welfare mother’ stereotype is alive and well, as is the extension of the concept recently widely propagated by several high-profile media outlets like NPR (debunked and sharply condemned by the Center for Policy and Economic Research, Media Matters for America, and numerous other organisations) and the New York Times (also criticised by the CEPR), suggesting that the disability benefits system is being bled dry by scroungers, particularly parents falsifying disability claims to get cheques for their kids.

This kind of rhetoric, in other words, that parents are exploiting the benefits system, is nothing new. It never acknowledges the reality of living on public benefits, starting with the fact that most people on benefits are members of the working poor, struggling to survive on inadequate wages and their government assistance. That benefits lag woefully behind cost of living, ensuring that people on benefits are effectively trapped in poverty, and the larger institutional structure of the United States makes it extremely difficult to get out of poverty.

Being on benefits is no walk in the park, and children living on benefits certainly don’t get any special treatment. Suggestions that the government cut benefits or stop them with additional children as an economic punishment for low-income people are a sentence to poverty, not a practical economic suggestion. More than that, they’re an indicator of the contempt many people have for the working class and working poor in the United States, and in some cases, they’re an outright sentence to death.

Because extreme poverty comes with no social safety net; once you have hit bottom, there is nowhere to go, and not everyone survives homelessness, lack of food and access to medical care, and social ostracisation. Members of the working class are more likely to experience illness, injury, and disability thanks to a combination of the nature of the work they do, the extreme stress they live under, and the lack of preventative health care; not to mention the impacts of environmental racism on low-income communities of colour, which ensure that those same children live on top of industrial waste dumps, inhaling clouds of pollution.

It was unsurprising to see people bringing up the s-word along with forced birth control in response to the original question, because many people in the United States genuinely do believe that poor people should be forced to take birth control, or should be forcibly sterilised, allowing the state to take total control of their reproductive capacity. It’s not just individuals who think this; numerous organisations and states have followed suit.

States like California and Oklahoma, to name just two, offer extensive benefits programmes encouraging poor people to get on birth control, with some reproductive health services (all related to pregnancy prevention, and some STI testing, none related to protecting fertility or helping people have children) wrapped in. Such state programmes also typically offer sterilisation—but once someone is sterilised, she is no longer eligible for benefits. That means she has no access to Pap smears, STI testing, and other benefits once offered through the state. The message sent is clear: with her reproductive capacities terminated, she is no longer of interest.

Private programmes, meanwhile, offer cash bonuses to some groups (usually women) in exchange for sterilisation. IV drug users, for example, can essentially be paid for ensuring they don’t reproduce. Such programmes are often touted as a social good, but little thought is given to the biases structured into their administration, and into the stigma that they perpetuate, as well as the attitudes they reinforce: by rewarding certain women for getting sterilised, these programmes suggest that such women shouldn’t be having children in the first place.

And, of course, involuntary sterilisation is still an issue in the United States, and not just in the sense of ongoing litigation over mass sterilisations in numerous US states of low-income women, women of colour, and disabled women, either. Periodic cases of individual sterilisations flicker across the news, with women claiming that they were sterilised during routine gynecological procedures without consent; this is often associated with a Cesarean section delivery, when it’s easy to access the fallopian tubes for a sterilisation. In other cases, sterilisations are quietly committed with no comment, usually because the victim is disabled and this is believed to be for her own good.

The responses to auntie crissle’s question were a grim reminder that the United States has not progressed very far socially in terms of its attitudes about reproductive autonomy for low-income people. Many people still freely believe that poor people should not be ‘allowed’ to reproduce, and feel very comfortable expressing these opinions in the atmosphere of a nation where the idea of punishing people for living in poverty is not only perfectly acceptable, but actively codified into legislation.

2 thoughts on “Involuntary Sterilisation in the United States

  1. Yes, recent vile headline in the Daily Mail in the UK blames benefits for a violent controlling man who murdered his children and had previously tried to kill a former lover.

    Much of the responses suggest sterilisation of vulnerable women to “save” them.

  2. I understand the rationale behind why poor folk should be careful not to *overly* reproduce (I was born and raised poor myself). When a family is struggling, the last thing it needs is another child to feed. This is common sense.

    On the other hand, what makes the government think it can FORCE sterilization on other human beings simply because of money? I am all for limited funds per family (as long as the amount received is respectable in the first place), but I am referring to ACTUAL sterilization. If the government were to do this, the behavior would be exactly the same as a pet owner having its dog spayed. Are poor people nothing more than animals simply because they have little money?

    By the way, not all poor folk are uneducated. I obtained three degrees–two advanced–and I am far from ignorant. I presume that generalization is merely nothing more than an excuse to justify the delusional “it-is-for-their-own-good” attitude that would back forced sterilization.

    For the record (and off), troubling economies create victims. This is expected and understood. Why are so many people–even those who are actively searching for work–blamed for their financial struggles when the fault is not theirs? Apparently, someone has to take the blame. Heaven forbid the culprit(s) be those who regulate economic growth.

    For those who may wonder, I am a professional freelance writer, editor, translator and researcher, and I am far from being affluent.

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