Forced Sterilizations Are Still Legal in 31 States, New Report Shows

A new reportThe data shows that 31 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have laws that allow permanent forced sterilizations. The issue was little known and unmonitored. Britney Spears, a pop star, brought attention to it last summer. testifiedHer father forced her to use birth control. Spears was not subjected surgical sterilization but her testimony sparked a discussion on reproductive rights, conservatorship, and other issues.

According to the report from the National Women’s Law Center, 17 states allow the permanent, surgical sterilization of children with disabilities. The report is written in plain English, so that it can be understood by those most affected by these laws.

The majority of people in the United States impacted by forced surgical sterilization — permanent procedures such as hysterectomies and tubal ligation — in the United States are under guardianship. Guardianship, called conservatorship in some states, is a legal arrangement designed to account for an individual’s incapacity to make legal and health decisions. The guardian, typically a family member, or professional, acts as a proxy for the guardian. People under guardianship in many states cannot refuse medical treatment, or vote.

People of color were historically the most affected by forced sterilization laws that were being used in eugenics movements around the turn of 20th century. Even after eugenics fell into disreputeAfter World War II, American law continued to support eugenic thinking. During the 1970s, the forced sterilization of Black women was so common in the American South that it was sometimes referred to as a “Mississippi appendectomy.”

Many consider forced sterilization to be a form of abortion. relic of the pastSome of these laws are quite recent. The two most recent state laws regarding forced abortion were passed in 2019. An appendixThe report lists the specific laws of every U.S. territory and state.

“These are very current laws,” said Ma’ayan Anafi, senior counsel for health equity and justice at the National Women’s Law Center and author of the report. “There’s still this narrative that disabled people, especially disabled people of color, are a burden on their families and to the public, that their having children is a threat to society,” they told The 19th.

The new report “advances disability justice in several critical ways” said Jasmine Harris, a professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Carey Law School and expert on disability and reproductive justice. In particular, she praised the report’s use of plain language, or writing designed to be understood by a general audience, rather than restricting information to legal experts and academics.

The National Women’s Law Center used plain language to make the information in the report accessible to at least some with intellectual disabilities.

“When people talk about forced sterilization, and are often talking as if disabled people are not there and don’t have a right to be part of the conversation,” Anafi said.

Anafi observed that this is particularly true for people with intellectual disabilities.

“There’s this idea that people with [intellectual disabilities] can’t understand sex and pregnancy, so someone has to make that decision for them. But the truth is, when we give disabled people the right tools and support, more people can engage in the public conversation and make their own decisions,” they told The 19th.

To produce a plain language report, the National Women’s Law Center partnered with the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network, a non-profit run by and for women on the spectrum. They also recruited national leaders with intellectual disability like Tia Nelis Max Barrows to help review and ensure that the writing was understandable to people who aren’t policy experts.

“Lawyers can also understand plain language,” Lydia X. Z. BrownDirector of policy, advocacy, and external affairs at Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network, Judith Sullivan, said The 19th.

Anafi and Brown both hope that the report will empower more advocates to understand the laws in their states — and, by extension, change them.

“Bringing attention to these laws in an accessible way is step one towards a policy change,” Anafi told The 19th. “Ultimately, we want policies that ensure that everyone has the tools and supports they need to make decisions about their own bodies,” they said.