Alabama: Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf
In 1973, the case of two young black girls in Montgomery, Alabama brought increased public awareness to the issue of sterilization abuse against black women in the South. Minnie Lee Relf (age 14) and Mary Alice Relf (age 12) were the youngest of six children born to parents who supported them on welfare assistance totaling $156 a month.
When nurses from the federally funded Montgomery Community Action Agency requested Mrs. Relf’s permission to administer the long-acting contraceptive depo-provera (then still in experimental stages) to her young daughters, she signed the consent form with an “X”. The request to inject the Relf girls with depo-provera was apparently based on reasoning that placed a brutal link between gender, race, poverty and a government interest in population control. However, several months before nurses approached the Relfs, government orders had put an end to federally funded hormonal injections (due to their carcinogenic effect in lab animals).
In truth, though their mother had consented to temporary birth control measures, she would later learn that both Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf had been permanently sterilized using federal funds. With the assistance of the Southern Poverty Law Center, in July 1973 the Relfs joined a class action lawsuit in federal court demanding a ban on the use of federal funds for sterilizations. The court found that patients receiving Medicaid assistance at childbirth were the most frequent targets of coercive tactics by doctors and medical practitioners. Judge Gerhard Gesell found that an estimated 100,000-150,000 poor women had been sterilized annually under federally funded programs. Another study discovered that nearly half of the women sterilized were black – a rate that equals that reached by the Nazi sterilization program of the 1930s. The case was a catalyst for the passage of federal guidelines regulating government funding for sterilization procedures.
Chicago Committee to End Sterilization Abuse (CCESA). 1977. “Sterilization Abuse: A Task for the Women’s Movement”(January-1977). Available online: <http://www.cwluherstory.org/CWLUArchive/cesa.html> Accessed: November 20, 2007.
Relf et al. vs. Weinberger et. al. Civil Action No. 73-1557 U.S. District Court. Washington, D.C. March 15, 1974.
Roberts, Dorothy. 1997. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Pantheon Books. pg. 93.
“Last month, shortly after the drug [depo-provera] was banned because of undesirable side effects, two nurses paid a visit to the shabby apartment where the Relfs live on $150 monthly welfare payments. Lonnie Relf, 56, a former field hand who has been unemployed since he was lamed in an auto accident four years ago, was away from home, but his wife Minnie recalls that the nurses told her the girls would have to go to the hospital for more shots. They said she must sign a paper, so she marked a surgical consent form with an X. The girls were taken to the Professional Center Hospital, kept overnight, and then sterilized next day by tubal ligation.
“I didn’t want it done, and I’m still upset,” Lonnie Relf testified last week before a Senate subcommittee, chaired by Edward M. Kennedy, which is pressing for a bill to tighten controls on Government medical experimentation. Relfs wife agreed: “I was mad. I wouldn’t have let them do that.”The family planning center has insisted that the operation was properly explained to Mrs. Relf, but she denies this. Had she then given a valid, informed consent, and did she have the legal right to do so? Or, more broadly, what right does the Government have to perform such an operation?”
“When the Office of Economic Opportunity set up its family-planning program in 1967, the regulations stated that “no project funds shall be expended for any surgical procedures intended to result in sterilization or to cause abortions.” To help poor people prevent unwanted births, the ban on funds for voluntary sterilization was quietly dropped in 1971—the OEO financed some 16,000 of them last year—but no rules were ever promulgated. A set of guidelines was drafted and printed, barring sterilization of anyone who did not have “the legal capacity to himself consent to the procedure,” but after an obscure controversy within the Administration, the guidelines were sent to a warehouse. Thus the use of federal funds for sterilization was left in a kind of legal vacuum.”