Sterilisation, Birth Control, Violence And Gender Inequality: Are These Related?


Dr Ian Bethell-Bennett


Progress is often sold as a package that takes something from someone else. In the creation of a penal colony in Australia, progress meant the deprival of rights and land from the Aboriginal people. What does it mean today?

In the 1970s in Puerto Rico, women were being sterilised without their informed consent. In Apartheid-era South Africa black women were often sterilised without their knowledge or consent.

In the United States and Canada some First Peoples were sterilised without their consent. In the US some women who were considered “undesirable” were sterilised so that they could not pass on their traits and so threaten the greater good. In the Bosnia-Croatia war women were raped by their neighbours in order to destroy ethnic groups. The shooting down of young black males in the United States almost daily continues the same thrust towards ethnic cleansing. Yet we do not connect the dots.

However, today we wish to focus on the abuse of women’s bodies by the state.

In the Puerto Rico case, it was widely used. In Puerto Rico, it was common to have the operation. “La Operación”, a documentary by Ana María García, sheds lights on this period.

Sponsored by a grant from US AID, sterilisation was free for all women on the island and there was a campaign to ensure that as many women as possible were sterilised in order to control population growth and promote prosperity.

While the Puerto Rican effort did not seek to rid the island of one particular group, its aim was wider and more universal, and resulted in the sterilisation more than one-third of Puerto Rican women. Many other programmes built on a similar philosophy, however, do not have a particularly narrow agenda or focus.

The wider context

Projects such as the forced sterilisation of women because of their socio-economic and/or marital status are often used by despotic governments to control through medical intervention. A great movie comes to mind when we think about mental control: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” explores the use of shock therapy to “dumb down” patients. The film exposes life in an insane asylum and how destructive it becomes through reliance on drugs and electroshock therapy to alter people’s minds and so render them malleable.

In the 1970s, shock treatment was used as a regular form of therapy for many patients, especially women who were seen to be hysterical or those experiencing postpartum depression. Medical science was still catching up and learning how to deal with the female body. As time marches on, so does medicine. However, policies towards women in some countries tend to remain very antiquated and draconian. For example, in Puerto Rico many large pharmaceutical companies experimented with birth control pills on women without warning them of any undue side effects.

In Puerto Rico, the American way of life provided sufficient justification for the mass sterilisations. It was seen as the better way to go and would ultimately mean the avoidance of poverty.

Much like the promise posed by “Operation Bootstrap” in Puerto Rico at the same time, where many Puerto Ricans were sold golden dreams of lives of employment and the American dream where they could work in factories for Hanes and Fruit of the Loom, this required controlled reproduction. Gender and development are never separated. The Puerto Rican paradigm, much like the Tuskegee experiments, promised progress, but at the expense of those being experimented on, those seen as expendable. They were chosen specifically because they represented what was seen as the dregs of humanity.

The list of these types of experiments goes on and does not exclude the British colonial exercise in Australia where thousands of Aboriginal youth were removed from their families and sent to centres to be educated and “civilised” so they could serve the Europeans and stamp out the native. See the film “The Rabbit-Proof Fence” for more information.

Many of these young girls were impregnated by their European “employers” and so the process became two-pronged.

The exploitation and eradication of indigenous cultures was similar in Chile, Argentina, Brazil and other Latin American countries where right-wing dictatorships that sought similar results through various of these strategies functioned freely. Shock treatment was widespread.

Further, another benefit to this exploitation and ultimate eradication of the native would be the free and complete use of the land and resources. So, while women’s productivity was being used to create wealth for the empire, their reproductivity was being controlled by the empire in an effort to destroy their racial and ethnic group.

This is what the famed sociologist Johan Galtung calls cultural violence.

This type of structural violence used to control and destroy and to have a predetermined outcome meant that an entire culture would be destroyed, what we now refer to as genocide. Yet the colonial powers were never charged with genocide. There is language for the kind of cultural violence that allows these things to happen. These kinds of policies are no different from the policies currently in place in some parts of Texas where women are categorically denied access to birth control because of a strong fundamentalist push to control women’s morality. The only apparent difference is how they look on the surface.

Local governance

Over the last few years, the Bahamian government has been less than exemplary in the way they have dealt with gender and racial/ethnic as well as class-based matters. In fact, they have often made extremely inflammatory, racially and sexually charged statements about women and what they need and how they should be treated, as well as about young, working-class males from inner-city areas. They have repeatedly made reference to the native quarter, the need for special policing to control the uncontrollably violent, dangerous, Negro youth and the need for women to be controlled by the state because of alarming rates of children being born out of wedlock into fatherless households.

We are living something that seems to be akin to the deployment of weapons of control and destruction for a population that is increasingly uneducated and so unable to challenge what is afoot. Weapons are not limited to guns and knives; they can be prescription drugs, words, policies and surgical interventions that achieve particular outcomes. We have decided as a culture that women can be slapped around and that they are worth less than men. Poor, black youth are worth less than rich youth; women’s reproductivity can be controlled by the state.

The talk these days, though, has become reminiscent of an extremely retrograde, classist, sexist, misogynist, colonialist discussion around whether women can choose to reproduce or be told how to live. Ironically, so many of big wigs scapegoat these young women and men who they determine to be less civilised for their own proclivities, (this too is frequently documented in history).

When we say that women must be slapped around and controlled by their owners and we argue that they have fewer rights than men, we also say that women are incapable of self-determination and so the state must take control of their bodies. As under slavery, enslaved and contracted workers’ bodies were owned/controlled by the master or the company they were contracted to; these women are now controlled by husbands, leaders or politicians.

A better, stronger

Bahamas, gender and

development economics

Afro-Caribbean psychiatrist, philosopher and revolutionary Frantz Fanon illuminated the dangers of the “Native Quarter” and the devastation that resulted from its creation. He also examined the racist and classist policies that allowed bodies to be savagely policed and used as chattel, especially within that quarter.

Slavery may have ended, the 1970s may be in the last century, and so we are better now, but the Dirty War in Argentina and the shock treatment used to control the population there and elsewhere show that these are always easily deployed.

Peter is no better than Paul, sadly, and the use of fundamentalist theology to imprison and destroy an entire population on a tiny island is not new.

In fact, this is an old weapon being retooled and reused in the 21st century in the guise of a different kind of shock.

The neoliberal Adam Smith-Friedrick von Hayek-style economics with a Milton Friedman-style implementation is dangerously alive today. It is beyond troubling that such degrading and paternalistic discourse can be so easily used by all parties and included in the political mix.

But even more troubling is the justification of the exploitation and the control of bodies, and the selling off of a country to foreign investors because we need them to develop us.

Yes, it is unacceptable to allow public figures to use such base language and inflammatory remarks and to argue that they will employ such strategies in their political policies, but we seem to be missing so much more than we are actually criticising.

Gender and class inequality are a very small part of the project to disempower that we have allowed to develop. How do we wish to control that project now? To be sure, unwanted child birth and unsupervised child-rearing are serious concerns, but education and awareness offer better ways to deal with these than state-controlled surgical interventions.


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