Genocide (genos-race/nation + cide-killing) is a nomenclature coined by Raphael Lemkin, a jurist who served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of War during the Second World War. The term helped describe the six million Jews murdered and the near extinction of the Roma people during the Nazi reign. 

But this was not the first Holocaust. Such mass killings can be traced to the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). In modern times, we can also include the 1915 massacre of the Armenians, and the Tutsi killings of the 1990s.

Genocide, for Lemkin, was defined as “the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. . . [It] signifies a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” 

This crime against humanity was codified by the United Nations General Assembly in Resolution 96-I in 1946. Specifically, the UN defined genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such: 

(a) Killing members of the group; 

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; 

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; 

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; 

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

When we consider the United States’ complicity with genocide, the elimination of the indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans followed by Jim and Jane Crow provide vivid examples. However, I want to focus on point (d)— imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group—a defined contemporary genocidal practice in which the United States continues to be complicit and a practice which the United Nation continues to ignore.

Since the early 20th century, thanks to the quack science of eugenics, members of the medical profession have been sterilizing those defined as “mentally defective” or “feeble-minded,” those deemed “unfit to propagate.” 

In 1907, the state of Indiana implemented the world’s first eugenics-based sterilization law. Shortly afterwards, 31 states followed its lead. 

Under these laws, some 60,000 women of color were sterilized. From 1909 to 1964, California sterilized 20,000 women—mostly African Americans, immigrants, and those of Mexican descent (the latter at higher disproportionate rates).

The “success” of reducing a “colored” threat of whites being overrun by defective races and ethnic groups became the inspiration for the rising Nazi Party in Germany which, once it obtained power, implemented similar laws. Even after the Nürnberg trials, where Nazis were convicted for their acts of genocide, the U.S. continued participating in its own genocidal acts.

During the 1950s, a third of the women of Puerto Rico were sterilized after their second child— most involuntarily. Meanwhile, in the South (specifically North Carolina and Virginia), with the demise of Jim and Jane Crow, sterilization of Black women increased to prevent the advancement of poor and minoritized communities. 

From 1970 to 1975, in response to the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act, sterilization increased 350 percent. About a million women were sterilized each year, most of whom were of color, representing more than a quarter of Native American women and Puerto Rican women of childbearing age. By the mid-1970s, working-class Mexican immigrant women were sterilized at Los Angeles County General Hospital without their consent.

But this is history, past events. Right? Surely, we no longer sterilize women of color without their consent. Right? Wrong! 

As recently as 2013, 348 women in two California prisons were coerced into sterilization. Undocumented migrant women, since 2020, before being deported back to their countries of origin, have had unnecessary hysterectomies—some without their consent— at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, which is operated by the Department of Homeland Security. 

Today, 31 states plus Washington, D.C. legally allow forced sterilization, while 17 states and 3 territories have ambiguous laws concerning forced sterilization. Only two states, Alaska and North Carolina, ban forced sterilization.

Not only does the U.S. have a history of sterilizing women of color, but they have been used as guinea pigs for medical experimentation. Ever since Dr. J. Marion Sims, the father of gynecology, cut into enslaved Black women without consent or anesthesia to sharpen surgical techniques while discovering the means of repairing vesicovaginal fistula, women of color have been disposable objects for the “greater good” of science.

More recently, before the first birth control pill, Enovid, was released to the public, it was tested on Puerto Ricans from the poorest neighborhoods of San Juan without them being told they were part of a trial, or the risk involved. 

A strong formulation of the drug (higher doses of hormones than today’s pills) led to illnesses, depression, and several deaths. And in 1989, when Purdue Pharma wanted to test OxyContin, they too turned to Puerto Rico!

When we think of the United States’ history of acts of genocide against the indigenous/ First Nation people and Africans, we have failed to include women of color who have had measures intended to prevent births imposed upon their bodies in violation of the UN definition of genocide. This, too, is a crime against humanity.

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