Familial Borderlands: Women of All Red Nations and the Fight Against Coerced Sterilizations

Historical Question: How Did American Indian Women Experience And Respond to Corerced Sterilizations?  

Earlier this year, while conducting research on American-Indian women activists groups, I came across No Más Bebés, an independent documentary promoted by Renee Tajima-Peña[1] This heart-wrenching account told the story of Latina women in Los Angeles, in the 1960s-1970s, who underwent surgery for a tubal ligation (having one’s “tubes tied”) after doctors at a Los Angeles County hospital coerced them to sign medical release forms. In other words, while Latina women were going through labor at a L.A. County hospital, doctors solicited them to sign English-only medical release forms to perform tubal ligation. Some doctors obtained these signatures from minority patients 1) who did not speak English, 2) while under the influence of pain medication, or 3) while being denied pain medication until a signature was obtained.

In many instances, the hospital did not inform these women that this procedure had been performed at all. Many remained unaware of the procedure until they visited a doctor after struggling to become pregnant or until a Civil Rights Lawyer, Antonia Hernández, reached out to possibly affected women. Hernández used these women’s testimony to create a case that would eventually be a federal class action lawsuit known as Madrigal v. Quilligan.  The case labeled the doctors’ actions of targeting these minority women for the procedure as discriminatory practices based on race and class. Meaning, because Latina women in Los Angeles were often poor, these doctors coerced them to sign for tubal ligation to prevent them from having more children doctors assumed they could not afford based on eugenic assumptions of overpopulation, poverty, racial discrimination.  Meanwhile, doctors argued that they worked in overcrowded conditions and they followed hospital policy.  

Though the case was unsuccessful in bringing about damages for the plaintiffs, it led to national attention and eventually changes in how doctors approached women for tubal ligation. For example, new regulations included a waiting period, a verbal explanation, and required forms be written in Spanish as well as English so women knew what they were signing.[2] While viewing this film, I started to question if the American-Indian women, whom I was researching at the time, experienced a similar kind of discrimination and how did the American-Indian women respond? After analyzing existing research, I noticed that women activist groups, such as Women of All Red Nations, played a significant role in responding to sterilization abuse occurring among American-Indian women by Indian Health Services. And yet, little is known of these contributions or experiences.

Multifarious Views of Women’s Reproductive Rights Supporters

The struggle for sexual reproduction rights is a complex political and social issue. But this complexity extends beyond claiming a political stance and extends to aspects that general audiences often overlook. In fact, most people disregard that feminist activists of the 1970s possessed different strategies based on their own localized experiences. Yet, regardless of their race, class, ethnicity, or feminist affiliation, these activists ultimately fought independently for the same goal – the right for a woman to control her body without government, institutional, or societal interference.

The goals of working-class and middle-class women, however, often conflicted with each other. During this time, middle-class American women fought for more accessibility to birth control, tubal ligation, abortion, and the right to remain childfree. Meanwhile,  working-class American women, many of whom were immigrants and minorities, fought for the right not to have their ability to bear children taken away through coerced or forced sterilization.[3] The goals between these two groups often diverged. For example, as historians illustrate, while many white feminists wanted less time between signing medical release forms and undergoing the procedure, minority women wanted more time.[4]  Even though these groups fought for similar ends – the right to choose for themselves whether or not to have a child – they based their strategies in obtaining those goals on localized experiences.

Forced Sterilization in the United States During the 1960s and 1970s

In the United States, medical facilities continued to perform coerced sterilizations in the 1960s and 1970s among impoverished women. These groups included African-American, Latina, American-Indian, and white Appalachian women.[5] Notably, American-Indian women on reservations across the U.S. experienced eugenics practices, such as sterilization abuse in federal facilities.[6] Eugenics encompassed social programs and scientific theories that attempted to limit the babies born, whom society and governments deemed undesirable and burdensome because of their class and race. By 1976, two different inquiries, led by the U.S. Government Accounting Office and Dr. Connie Pinkerton-Uri, confirmed the extent of the practice. Notably, studies suggested that up to 50% of American-Indian women during the early to mid-1970s experienced sterilization abuse by the Indian Health Service while receiving unrelated medical treatment for conditions such appendicitis.[7] In many instances, Indian Health Services’ doctors did not follow the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare’s tubal ligation regulations when it came to factors such as:

  • sterilizing underage American-Indian women;
  • using inconsistent wording on consent forms at different facilities;
  • not meeting the 72-hour waiting period, and
  • producing forms that met the federal standards of informed consent.[8]

In response to these discriminatory practices and conflicting agendas among feminist groups, the Women of All Red Nations (WARN) attempted to improve the social and physical environments in which American-Indian families lived.

Native Americans Response to Forced Sterilization

The WARN founders, who originally advocated for the American Indian Movement, decided to advance the cause of American Indian Civil Rights by taking up American-Indian women’s issues such as forced sterilization. In each of their causes, WARN’s goal included ensuring tribal continuity and the protection of natural resources on reservations. Thus, WARN identified the issue of forced sterilization as a woman’s reproductive rights issue, but also as a way to help tribes gain independence from government interference. More specifically, WARN viewed forced sterilization as a method in which the federal government planned to take natural resources away from the tribes. Considering this, WARN represented a collective American-Indian women’s response that moved beyond individual tribal identities.

Through WARN’s activism, these women brought awareness of the federal government’s eugenics policy of providing family planning to minorities and low-income earners as a method to prevent federal spending and to undermine tribal continuance. According to WARN, these policies promoted sterilization abuse. Thus, WARN advocated for American-Indian women’s rights as it pertained to family development as a way to ensure the continuance of their tribes.[9] They sought to promote disclosure, education, and support of issues important to American-Indian women and their families between the various tribal nations and groups. Thus, they held meetings, participated in conferences, held interviews, and produced publications. Most effectively it seems, WARN advocated for American-Indian women on the reservations and away from national attention.[10]

Today’s issues of Forced Sterilization in the United States

Many similarities in the motivations, tactics, and long-term social and psychological effects of sterilization abuse exist between the Latina and American-Indian women in the United States. This issue for forced sterilization of low-income and minority women, especially American-Indian women is still relevant today. In 2010, headlines appeared stating that the California Prison System had sterilized prison inmates without consent, prompting state legislation reform in 2014.[11]  But as seen above, policies regulating tubal ligation of minority and immigrant women is not always enforceable. Additionally, questions about compensation and support for women who underwent coerced or forced tubal ligation then and now still remains.[12]

Further Reading

Meg Devlin O’Sullivan, “‘We Worry About Survival’: American Indian Women Sovereignty and the Right to Bear and Raise Children in the 1970s,” Dissertation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2007.https://cdr.lib.unc.edu/indexablecontent?id=uuid:7a462a63-5185-4140-8f3f-ad094b75f04d&ds=DATA_FILE

Jane Lawrence. “The Indian Health Service and the Sterilization of Native American Women,” American Indian Quarterly. Vol. 24, No 3. Summer 2000. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1185911;

Renee Tajima-Peña, “No Más Bebés,” PBS,  http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/no-mas-bebes/

Sally J. Torpy, “Native American Women and Coerced Sterilization: On the Trail of Tears in the 1970s,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 24:2, 2000. 1-22.


[1] Renee Tajima-Peña, “No Más Bebés,” PBS,  http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/no-mas-bebes/

[2] http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/no-mas-bebes/ and http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alex-stern/sterilization-california-prisons_b_3631287.html

[3] Meg Devlin O’Sullivan, “‘We Worry About Survival’: American Indian Women Sovereignty and the Right to Bear and Raise Children in the 1970s,” Dissertation. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2007), 35, 42 and Gloria Steinem, “The Way We Were and Will Be” in MS Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 6 (December 1979): 60-94.

[4] O’Sullivan, “We Worry,” 35

[5] http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/no-mas-bebes

[6] https://cbhd.org/content/forced-sterilization-native-americans-late-twentieth-century-physician-cooperation-national-

[7] The commonly cited statistic produced from various studies is between 25-50%;  Jane Lawrence. “The Indian Health Service and the Sterilization of Native American Women,” American Indian Quarterly. Vol. 24, No 3 (summer 2000) pp. 400.http://www.jstor.org/stable/1185911; https://cbhd.org/content/forced-sterilization-native-americans-late-twentieth-century-physician-cooperation-national-;  https://www.nlm.nih.gov/nativevoices/timeline/543.html

[8] Lawrence, “The Indian Health Service,” 400-409.

[9] O’Sullivan, “We Worry,” 34 10,11, 102.

[10] Sally J. Torpy, “Native American Women and Coerced Sterilization: On the Trail of Tears in the 1970s,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 24:2 (2000) 15-16. https://www.law.berkeley.edu/php-programs/centers/crrj/zotero/loadfile.php?entity_key=2UW2FCT5; O’Sullivan, “We Worry,” 91-94.

[11] http://www.nbcnews.com/health/womens-health/california-bans-sterilization-female-inmates-without-consent-n212256

[12] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/genetic-crossroads/201309/involuntary-sterilization-then-and-now