Committee to End Sterilization Abuse
[M]any women, in and outside the U.S., are often deceived or coerced into undergoing sterilization operations, often without even knowing that they had been sterilized. And most often, the subjects of such abuse are the poor, the Black, the Latino, the American Indian–those already abused by our health care system. – Chicago Committee to End Sterilization Abuse (CCESA). “Sterilization Abuse: A Task for the Women’s Movement”(January-1977)
The Committee to End Sterilization Abuse was formed in the late 1970s by women of color in order to address the experiences of women of color with coercive sterilization practices. At a New York City Council hearing, CESA introduced guidelines designed to prevent sterilization abuses which served as a model for federal sterilization reform. The CESA guidelines required informed consent in the preferred language of the patient and a 30-day waiting period between the signing of an informed consent form and the sterilization procedure. In addition they suggested measures be put in place to prevent the practice of obtaining consent during labor, immediately following childbirth or abortion procedures, or in the context of a threat that patients could lose welfare benefits if they do not agree to sterilization procedures. (Roberts 1997: 95-96)
In 1978, the CESA guidelines calling for informed consent in the preferred language of the patient and 30-day waiting period were adopted by the Department of Health Education and Welfare (HEW) in their creation of new rules restricting sterilization performed under federally funded programs (i.e. Medicaid and AFDC). The HEW guidelines also prohibited hysterectomies performed for sterilization purposes and the use of federal funds to sterilize minors, those declared mentally incompetent to consent, or institutionalized persons. (Roberts 1997: 97)
Unfortunately, CESA’s important advocacy work and the influential guidelines they proposed were not met with widespread support within the mainstream feminist movement. Two of the major organizations leading the pro-choice movement, Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) opposed the CESA guidelines to end the sterilization abuse of women of color, arguing that they restricted white, middle-class women’s access to voluntary sterilization (Roberts 1997: 300). Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias, one of the founding members of the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse, described one such conflict that arose at a 1974 conference held in Boston which was attended by thousands of women:
“We had a panel on sterilization abuse, which had to do with disrespect for women’s needs, wishes, and hopes. We brought up the Relf suit, brought on behalf of 2 Black, allegedly retarded girls, Minnie Lee Relf, age 12, and Mary Alice Relf, age 14, who had been sterilized without their knowledge or consent in a federally funded program in Montgomery, Alabama.“The Southern Poverty Law Center found out about the girls, and interviewed the mother, who said she thought she was consenting to the girls’ getting a contraceptive. She signed the consent form with an X because she couldn’t read and write. The case went to federal court, which said there was incontrovertible evidence that sterilization abuse was taking place, that some sterilization abuse was being subsidized by the government, and enjoined HEW [US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare] to come up with guidelines to prevent sterilization abuse.”
“We got a lot of flack from White women who had private doctors and wanted to be sterilized,” she said. “They had been denied their request for sterilization because of their status (unmarried), or the number of their children (usually the doctor thought they had too few). They therefore opposed a waiting period or any other regulation that they interpreted as limiting access . . . While young white middle class women were denied their requests for sterilization, low income women of certain ethnicity were misled or coerced into them,” she explained. (Wilcox 2002)
Serena Sebring - last update: November 26, 2007
Roberts, Dorothy. 1997. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Pantheon Books. pg. 93.
Wilcox, Joyce. 2002. “The Face of Women’s Health: Helen Rodriguez-Trias.” American Journal of Public Health 92(4): 566-569.