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This is our blog for our presentation on the sterilization of Native American women in the U.S. Our presentation is in order of of the major events that occurred relating to this topic, so it’s best if you start at the post below, “The Big Picture”, and make your way down the page. Our bibliography and discussion questions are posted on separate pages that you can access by clicking the links in the menu at the top of the screen. Enjoy!

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The Big Picture

By: Hayley Walton

During the 1960’s and 1970’s an alarming number of surgical sterilization procedures were being performed on Native American women ranging from the ages of fifteen to forty-four years old (Genocide).   These unusually high numbers drew a significant amount of attention and controversy towards the American Indian community.

 

These procedures were being performed by the Indian Health Service (IHS), a federally funded program that was established to address the health care issues of American Indians.  In 1965, the IHS began offering Native American families with family planning services. These services included providing women with information on the various types of birth control such as how they work and how to use them.   The family planning services were introduced as a way for the U.S. government, along with the IHS, to address the high birth rate among American Indians.   The family services program was supposed to only provide information about the different methods of birth control and, unless the woman had a medical condition that had specific requirements, the woman was supposed to choose whether or not she wanted to participate in the program and if so, what method of birth control she wanted to use.  This is where the controversy arises…

In the early 1970’s more and more Native American women began asking questions about the procedures that had been done on them.   In some cases the women had no idea that the procedure was irreversible, and in one case, a women even came to a clinic asking for a “womb transplant” because she was falsely told that she could have one when she decided that she wanted to have more children (Genocide).  It soon became apparent that a distressing amount of Native American women had been given false information on the procedure itself as well as the implications surrounding it.

Here’s a YouTube video that talks a little bit about the legislation behind the family planning services as well as the sterilization controversy:

The Sterilizations

By: Kelsey Duke

In 1974 a study done by the Women of All Red Nations (WARN) organization reported that possibly up to 42% of American Indian women had been sterilized without their consent (Forced Sterilization).   Although many studies argue that this number is extremely exaggerated, it drew more attention to the issue and many more women came forward and told their stories.  Some women said they were asked to sign the consent form for the procedure while they were actually in the delivery room, giving birth to unknowingly what would be their last child.  Women who were in child labor frequently reported that they were in tremendous amounts of pain and some even claimed that they were told that they were signing a consent form for painkillers, others had no idea what they were signing (Lawrence).  In cases where the women did know what they were signing, many said that they either did not know that the procedure was permanent, or that they were falsely informed that if they did not agree to the procedure they would lose all benefits provided to them by the government or even custody of their children (Genocide).   Another large factor contributing to the lack of consent stemmed from the fact that many of the women could not fluently speak English and therefore could not understand the written consent forms or the verbal explanations (Raslin-Lewis). One report even stated that two fifteen year old girls were told they were having their tonsils removed when the sterilization procedure was done on them (Forced).  Regardless of the exact circumstance, it is evident that many of the women were taken advantage of in the way that they were asked to sign any consent forms. 

The Investigation

By: Hayley Walton

The issue soon gained national attention and the increasing number of forced sterilization allegations led Senator James Abourzek from South Dakota to call upon the General Accounting Office (GAO) to conduct a thorough investigation of the accusations against the HIS (Forced Sterilizations).   The investigation itself was somewhat controversial because the GAO only investigated four of the twelve areas of the program that conducted the sterilization procedures.  In doing so they found that the IHS had performed 3,406 sterilization procedures from 1973-1976 but this number did not include any procedures done in one of the four areas that was investigated due to the fact that the procedures in that region were performed by contract physicians and not physicians of IHS (Forced). Obviously this exclusion caused the number reported to be fairly low, compared to what it should have been.   The GAO investigation also failed to interview any of the Native American women who were sterilized because they felt that it would not be a productive effort (Lawrence).  Ultimately the investigation concluded that the IHS had committed an alarming number of violations, including over thirty sterilization procedures done on under-age girls.   Despite the violations, the investigation reported that they were due to the fact that some IHS physicians were not aware or did not understand all of the regulations or that the contract physicians were not responsible for following the regulations.  These regulations included providing oral presentation of the consent form for those who could not read and including a statement at the top of the consent form informing the women of their right to withdraw consent (Lawrence). 

 

Here’s another video that is a little more opinionated on the subject but still gives a lot of good facts and numbers relating to the sterilization of Native American women and the overall treatment of Native Americans in our country:

The Consequences

By: Kelsey Duke

The investigation led for stricter regulations surrounding the IHS and their practices but for many women it was already too late.  Several studies have been conducted on the issue and many report that some where between 25 and 50 percent of Native American women were sterilized by the IHS from 1970 to 1976 (Lawrence).  The birth rate for Indian women fell at a rate seven times greater than that of white women between 1970 and 1980 (Ralstin-Lewis).  Many people share the belief that this was a systematic attack on Native women in an effort to reduce the Native population, an effort that many consider to be genocide. 

The sterilizations of these women had devastating effects beyond just the overall population reduction.  Many of the women found their marriages ending in divorce.  Friendships and families were also torn apart while the entire Indian community experienced higher rates of marital problems, drug and alcohol abuse, psychological difficulties, shame, and guilt (Lawrence).   The tribal communities also suffered as a result of the mass sterilization.  Losing the ability to reproduce caused the tribes to lose much of their political power in tribal councils due to the lessened population count.  Many Indian leaders also claim that the tribe’s economic base and independence were greatly affected by the sterilizations.  In 1976, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act was passed by Congress, giving the Native American tribes the ability to manage their own health service programs (Lawrence).