The coerced sterilization of Indigenous women
In 1972, the longest-running and most aggressive sexual sterilization law in Canada was finally repealed. Yet, policies of sterilization still persisted, revived under the guise of ‘family planning’ and targeting women and men declared incapable of responsible parenting. Sixty Indigenous women are currently filing a class action lawsuit alleging forced sterilization dating back 30 years in Saskatchewan. Some of the sterilizations occurred as late as 2017. They are each claiming seven million dollars (US $5.6 million) in damages.
The women allege their fallopian tubes were tied without their consent, or that they were pressured into undergoing the procedure by doctors and told that it was reversible. Some were pushed into signing consent forms while they were in active labour or on operating tables. These women were told that they ‘could not leave until their tubes were tied, cut or cauterized,’ or that ‘they would not see their baby until they agreed’.
Alisa Lombard, who works with Maurice Law, the first Indigenous-owned law firm in Canada, represents the women in the class-action suit. As she stated to The Guardian, ‘These are people whose choices were taken away and they are choices based in fundamental human rights. The very intimate and personal decision to have children – or to not have children – belongs to the individual. It’s not something that can be fettered or influenced or coerced or forced.’
Forced sterilization, Lombard argues, is a violation of various human rights that Canada is bound to uphold; and because it constitutes cruel and ill treatment, it is also a violation of the Geneva Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Lombard also told Anna Maria Tremonti, host of the CBC Radio programme ‘The Current’ that the vast majority of the women are from reserve-based communities in Saskatoon, North Battleford, Regina, and other areas that are more rural.
How could this have happened? Speaking to Rachel Martin, host of NPR’s Morning Edition, Lombard answers: ‘I think we can just say discrimination – racism, quite plainly.’
Indeed, systemic institutional racism and discrimination have negatively affected the quality of healthcare available to Indigenous Peoples. Canada’s history of sterilization emerges from the eugenics movement, which was based on the writings of Francis Galton, an ugly chapter of pseudoscience that was ensnared by Nazi ideas of racial hygiene.
In 1928, seven years before the Nazi race laws systematically targeted German Jews, minorities and disabled people, Alberta passed the Sexual Sterilization Act. British Columbia soon followed with An Act Respecting Sexual Sterilization in 1933. At least three thousand people were sterilized in these two provinces alone. Other provinces enacted their own policies as an appealing solution to perceived problems of social and moral decay.
In the 1940s, eugenics as hereditarianism was repackaged under the rubric of genetic counselling, family planning, and population control. As Alexandra Stern writes in Eugenic Nation: Faults & Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America, forced sterilization was also motivated by anxieties about ‘sexual deviance and the promiscuity of teenage girls, fears of biological deterioration, and a discourse of institutional cost saving’. Many instances of forced, involuntary sterilization were justified as necessary public health interventions.
It became another way of promoting birth control to reduce the size of marginalized groups: in North Carolina, African Americans deemed ‘unfit’ were sterilized in the 1950s and 1960s, and in Puerto Rico, women were pushed into la operación as a solution to overpopulation. Further, even as the Nuremberg Trials of 1947 outlined ethical conduct for informed consent, provisions were never made in cases where individuals were already institutionalized or subjects of an ongoing medical experiment, as with the case of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.
As Stern points out, the protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s were in part a response to the effects of eugenics-based polices and rationales. Yet, Indigenous women continued to be subjected to discriminatory treatment in hospitals. In An Act of Genocide: Colonialism and the Sterilization of Aboriginal Women, Karen Stote argues the control of Indigenous women’s reproductive capacities has been central to the strategic and systematic targeting of Indigenous Peoples for assimilation into Canadian society. Coercive sterilization was rationalized as a means of protecting society and women from the stresses of additional births, and to reduce the birth rate and the extent of the federal government’s obligations to Indigenous Peoples. Eugenic ideology ‘served as a convenient rationalization for the dire circumstances created by colonization’.
Coercive sterilization, argues Stote, served as a compounded strategy to exert colonial control to shape the sexual lives of Indigenous women, who were often ‘referred to as sexually promiscuous, Aboriginal women were considered immoral and blamed for prostitution, the spread of venereal disease and alcohol problems, and were generally said to represent a threat to the public’. Stote’s research uncovered that 580 coercive sterilizations were carried out by ‘eugenically-minded doctors’ between 1971 and 1972 in federal ‘Indian hospitals’.
One of the women was Leilani Muir, who had been living at the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives in Red Deer during the 1950s. After she had an appendectomy, her fallopian tubes were cut without her consent or knowledge, a fact she only realized years later when she tried to conceive a child.
Muir became the first person to sue the provincial government and won. Other Indigenous women have also shared their horrific stories. In 2015, Brenda Pelletier revealed she was pressured to sign the consent form after giving birth to her seventh child five years prior; she alleges her doctor didn’t want to discharge her until her tubes were tied. Pelletier and her friend Tracy Bannab, who was also coerced, came forward with their stories, forcing the Saskatoon Health Region to implement new policies and apologize. An independent study asserted that women should only have tubal litigation surgery after a vaginal delivery if the decision to have the procedure is made and consent is given in advance.
Yvonne Boyer, a Métis lawyer, former nurse, and the Senator for Ontario, argues coerced sterilization is one of the ‘most heinous’ practices happening under the guises of medical care. These cases are another form of systemic violence against Indigenous women, who vanish or are murdered in alarming rates. As Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada asserts, ‘It is impossible not to conclude that this arises from a context of deeply entrenched racism and colonialism. This is tied up with stereotypes of Indigenous women as being incapable mothers.’
Coercive sterilization is a mark of settler colonialism and is recognized by the UN as a human rights violation, a form of discrimination, and violence against women. It is, as Stote remarks, ‘to be understood as one of the many policies employed to undermine Aboriginal women, to separate Aboriginal peoples from the lands and resources, and to reduce the numbers of those to whom the federal government has obligations’. In short, it is cultural genocide against a marginalized group of people under the guises of settler colonialism, racism, and eugenics.
Yet it is not illegal in Canada under the Criminal Code, a process that Lombard is actively trying to change. Currently, forced sterilization can be considered as sexual battery in the civil realm, or sexual assault in the criminal realm.
Lombard’s firm raised the issue of coerced sterilization of Indigenous women at the UN Committee Against Torture earlier this week, outlining specific steps to combat the practice, including criminalizing forced sterilization through the Criminal Code and having Health Canada (the government department responsible for public health) issue guidance to health professionals regarding sterilization procedures. The UN Committee Against Torture is expected to release its report on 7 December.
Jaipreet Virdi is a historian of medicine and disability at the University of Delaware. She is on Twitter as @jaivirdi
Karen Stote, An Act of Genocide: Colonialism and the Sterilization of Aboriginal Women (Halifax & Winnipeg, Fernwood Publishing, 2015).
Erika Dyck, Facing Eugenics: Reproduction, Sterilization, and the Politics of Choice (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013).
Maureen Lux, Separate Beds: A History of Indian Hospitals in Canada, 1920s-1980s (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016).
Alexandra Minna Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America, 2nd Edition (University of California Press, 2015).
Barbara Gurr, Reproductive Justice: The Politics of Health Care for Native American Women (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2015).