For centuries a woman’s worth has been ascribed to her womb. And for centuries some women’s wombs have been deemed more valuable than others. Over time thousands of women across North and South America were sterilized involuntarily under various eugenics laws. Reports from Laboratory, North Carolina to Lima, Peru indicate that such laws ranged from targeting prisoners and the mentally ill to the impoverished and racially or ethnically subjugated. We continue to feel the effects of these laws as they link governments and multinational corporations to the acquisition of natural resources, cheap labor pools, scientific experimentation, population control and accumulated profit in the era of globalization.
Unfortunately most victims of legalized involuntary sterilization suffer in silence, especially those outside of the US. Indigenous women like Victoria, featured in this news clip from Peru, are among the 322,000 victims (300,000 women and 22,000 men) of the nation’s “Voluntary Surgical Contraception Program” enacted between 1996 and 2000. Victoria’s fallopian tubes were cut without her consent. Then, adding insult to injury, she was told (incorrectly) that the procedure was reversible. According to Peruvian Congresswoman Hilaria Supa Huamán, “The [Peruvian] government, with [help from] the US, Japan, EU and the World Bank, started a sterilization campaign, on the theory that if there were fewer poor, there would be less poverty.” After a decade of suffering women like Victoria are speaking out. With the ear of Huamán and Peru’s new vice president Marisol Espinoza they are hoping that victims will finally get justice, not to mention adequate medical attention for the physical and psychological impairments they’ve endured.
Victoria’s story provides a starting point for examining the fraught nexus we call "reproductive imperialism" in a global context. Why is it more efficient to eliminate poor people than it is to eliminate poverty? Why do mediated representations of poor women of color justify involuntary sterilization while celebrating irresponsible white teenage motherhood? What does this history of extermination bring to bear on today’s “pro-life” and “pro-choice” campaigns? And, most important, how can we ensure reproductive freedom for all women worldwide?
We can start by recognizing that reproductive imperialism is systemic; it’s about institutions, not individuals. We can continue by raising awareness about its dangers here and elsewhere. We can finish by acting together to create a world where silencing the vulnerable and eliminating “unfit” populations is not just news but history.