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Charting & Challenging Eugenics 2021

Dr. Shantella Sherman

The Acumen Group

A decade ago, I covered a public hearing of the Eugenics Task Force Listening Session held in Raleigh, N.C., that allowed survivors of North Carolina’s forced sterilizations to give testimonies of their experiences. Depositions detailed accounts of children and young adults being coerced by social workers, public health administrators, physicians, teachers, and neighbors into hospitals and sterilized. My eugenics research, until 2011 had been largely archival – asylum and clinician notes, patient records, and the speeches, legislation, and mandates issued to ensure that those the nation considered socially unfit, could not reproduce.

But the testimonies of those impacted by eugenic sterilizations humanized the victims and their families and made clear just how perilous the fight against a stacked system proved. The facts: a nine-year-old girl was the young sterilization victim; most Americans were sterilized for being “feebleminded” – a catchall phrase to denote poverty, low I.Q., and the potential for sexual immorality; and many African Americans and immigrants were targeted for sterilization to decrease their social and political power.

America’s preoccupation with weeding out its “weaker” citizens did not end when eugenics itself lost social favor, but instead, continued to chart a course of reproductive and human rights abuse into 2021. In the ten years since those North Carolina hearings -- which resulted in reparations being paid by the state to living survivors through the 2015 Eugenics Compensation Act -- new allegations of forced sterilizations were leveled against penal institutions in Tennessee and California. And so, my research and that of my colleagues at The Acumen Group continues. Before I move forward though, let me push back so that you gain a clear understanding of what eugenics and eugenic sterilizations entail.