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Forced sterilization survivors are still alive and deserve an apology, Utah researchers say

Researchers estimate there may be 54 survivors of Utah's forced sterilization policies that are still alive today.

(CN) — Forced sterilization in the U.S. may seem like a faraway horror, but new research estimates that there are still dozens of living survivors of Utah's sterilization program that the state has yet to make amends to.

In a paper published Wednesday in The Lancet Regional Health – Americas, researchers from The University of Utah describe their examination of archival records and partially redacted medical charts. Those show that 830 people with psychological issues, neurodevelopmental disorders, and others deemed “sexual deviants” or “habitually sexually criminal, insane, idiotic, imbecile, feebleminded, or epileptic” who were institutionalized in the Utah State Hospital, Utah State Prison, Utah State Industrial School, and the Utah State Training School were forcibly sterilized between 1925 and 1974. Many teenegers and at least one child under the age of 10 were among those sterilized against their will.

Using a methodological tool used in statistics called a life table analysis, the researchers estimated that 54 people who were sterilized during those 49 years may still be alive, with their median age being around 78 years old.

“Given the advanced age of the potential survivors, time is running out for a reconciliation that can be experienced by those who were most harmed by the practice,” the paper states. 

Some might even still be patients at the medical facilities that sterilized them, said the study's lead author James Tabery, a philosophy professor at The University of Utah.

“What that means is both there are still people out there who society owes something. They deserve to be spoken to. They deserve an apology, and it’s a reminder to be vigilant of this coming back,” Tabery said.

In the paper, Tabery traces Utah’s sterilization program from before the state legislature passed a bill in 1925 that legalized forced sterilizations of targeted populations, to the nationwide eugenics movement in the early 20th century during which eugenics adherents argued that people they deemed "unfit" or "undesirable" were destroying the country by producing more children than people they deemed to be "fit."  

The class of people deemed “unfit” was malleable but often included people with neurodevelopmental disorders and psychological disorders, ethnic minorities, and people convicted of various crimes.

Sterilization of people was one way eugenicists promoted to limit the population of people deemed unfit. 

The Nazis were influenced by the U.S. eugenics movement and implemented many of its most horrific proposals during the Holocaust, including forced sterilization. 

In the U.S., Black women in the South, Latina women in Puerto Rico and California, and Native American women and men in the West and the Great Plains were also victims of coerced or forced sterilization. 

More recently, in 2020, women detained in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Georgia alleged that they were pressured into having their uteruses removed by a gynecologist at the facility without their full understanding or consent. 

“Over 60,000 people were sterilized across the United States, victims of eugenic programs implemented in 32 states,” the research paper states. “Utah had a particularly aggressive eugenic sterilization program, hailed by eugenicists for sterilizing such a large proportion of its population, and lasting well into the 1970s.”

Multiple factors led Utah to stopping their forced sterilization program in 1974, Tabery said. There is no law that ended the practice, but it faded over time as mindsets changed, medical ethics were more firmly established and respected. There was also a class action lawsuit in the 1970s relating to Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf — sisters who were involuntarily sterilized in Alabama at the ages 12 and 14, respectively — which resulted in a ruling prohibiting the use of federal funds for forced sterilization.

No governor, state legislative body, or other political official in Utah has formally apologized for the sterilization program, or to the surviving victims themselves.  

The paper recommends that the state make some sort of formal apology for its past sterilization program.

“Eugenic sterilization programs were scientifically unfounded and morally reprehensible; they did real harm to members of already-marginalized communities, permanently stealing their right to decide for themselves whether to have children and deeply shaming them by singling them out as unworthy of that right,” the paper states. “Public apologies from state officials, even if those who express remorse were not involved in the original harm, can serve to redirect shame away from the victims and toward the government forces that took advantage of their vulnerable status; they can make plain for both victims and the wider public that a grave mistake was made and must be guarded against so that it is not repeated, and they can create space for survivors to come forward and reveal the true human costs of such programs.”

The paper also brings up the possibility of following North Carolina, Virginia, and California’s example of providing some form of compensation for survivors. 

But, “an apology doesn’t cost anything,” Tabery said. 

Categories:Government, Health, Science

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