1970: 25% Of Native American Women Sterilized Via A New U.S. Law

By | July 5, 2020

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(Department of Health and Education/Wikimedia Commons)

Following the passage of an often-forgotten law called the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act of 1970, physicians sterilized at least 25% of Native American women of childbearing age, possibly even more. Throughout the early '70s, any Native woman who received health care through the Indian Health Service was targeted by this awful clandestine program. Many of the procedures were done without the knowledge of the victims, who often only found out when they tried to conceive later in life, and some women were even forced or coerced by physicians. The sterilization of Native American women finally came to light in the 2010s thanks to Jane Lawrence, a historian who tracked the procedures performed on Native women throughout the '60s and '70s.

A Reaction To Decline On Reservations

After Native Americans were placed on reservations in the 1800s, their numbers plummeted quickly. By 1900, there were fewer than 250,000 Native Americans in the country, partially thanks to a sky-high infant mortality rate resulting from conditions on the reservations. Rather than allow their people to completely disappear, many Native women had more children than they otherwise would, even if it meant compromising their own health. It's believed that these "extraordinarily high birth rates" are what kept Native Americans from disappearing completely.

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"Too Many Minority Individuals"

In the 19th century, the Office of Indian Affairs built a series of bare-bones hospitals across the country that were meant to treat Native Americans. By 1950, the OIA became the Indian Health Service, and employees pushed Native women to use their hospitals and medical centers to give birth rather than planning traditional home births. Native women went along with the IHS's suggestion, and for once, the number of Indigenous women giving birth matched that of national numbers. This might seem like a good thing, but the federal government didn't think so. "Some of [the IHS doctors] did not believe that American Indian and other minority women had the intelligence to use other methods of birth control effectively and that there were already too many minority individuals causing problems in the nation," Jane Lawrence wrote.