Reproductive rights history

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Question:   In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that forced sterilization was unconstitutional in Buck v. Bell.

A)  True.

B)  False.

Answer:  B) False.


Reproductive rights in America intersect with disability history in many different ways. Throughout the heyday of American interest in eugenics, reproductive rights for people with disabilities were manipulated to support eugenic causes. Many people were discouraged or prevented from marrying, forcibly sterilized, and denied the right to care for their children. The lasting stereotypes of disability have also historically impacted access to reproductive care for people with disabilities as well as parenting rights, and many of these struggles for rights continue today.

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Buck v. Bell

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the concept of eugenics was very popular. Eugenics is an ideology that seeks to manipulate a population by selecting for more desirable genes. (Saxton 776) As new methods of birth control became available and prevalent, and as more was learned and theorized about human genes and evolution, this new information was applied against the stereotypes that many in society held of people with disabilities. Many were discouraged or prevented from marrying, especially where the marriage would be between two people with disabilities (777). This was to prevent disabilities from being genetically passed down to a new generation.

In many cases, if a child was born with a disability, they were treated differently from birth. The case of the Bollinger Baby in Chicago gained widespread attention as an example of such inequitable treatment. In 1915, Dr. Harry Haiselden denied lifesaving treatment to the fourth child of the Bollinger family on the grounds of disability (“Another”). The child lived for only three days. The story gained attention through local newspapers, but any outrage that occurred was not enough to prevent the same thing from happening to another child in Chicago just days later (ibid). Such was the impact of eugenic ideology on reproduction and childbearing.

Women with disabilities were also portrayed as incapable of being mothers and prevented from having children. In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Buck v. Bell that involuntary sterilization was constitutional (Saxton 777). Carrie Buck had been labeled as “feebleminded” and was residing in an institution with her mother when she gave birth to a child; as a result, doctors in the institution wanted to see Buck sterilized (Shapiro 158). After a legal battle that wound up at the Supreme Court, Buck’s rights and the rights of many others were removed. Involuntary sterilization was upheld, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, as “better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerative offspring for crime, or let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind” (ibid).

Stereotypes outside of eugenics also contributed to sexual and reproductive limitations for people with disabilities. As Michel Desjardins argues, people with disabilities and their sexuality have been historically sorted into one of two categories: either “seraphic” and childlike, completely asexualized; or the “mephistophelic” and “hypersexual” individual whose desires are too great to be controlled by reason (69). The first stereotype promoted forced sterilization by leading people to deny the sexuality of an individual, believing them instead to be eternally a child and thus in no need for sexual access or reproductive rights. The second stereotype promoted forced sterilization by perpetuating the image of the individual as a threat to society, thus in need of outside intervention to protect public safety.

Stigma sprouting from historical stereotypes of the past frequently translates into modern avoidance of the interactions between reproductive rights and disability. According to Rickie Solinger, many women with disabilities report health care providers often have “negative attitudes” toward reproductive health topics, and they are often afraid to raise the topics themselves (129). Furthermore, in light of historical concerns of reproductive rights and disability justice, many disability rights activists find some modern practices to be questionable. Prenatal testing in particular creates division, as many feel that such tests can lead down a eugenic slippery slope (Parens and Asch S1). Given the dark history of disability and reproductive rights, it is important to be aware of the impact that modern decisions may have on people with disabilities.


Works Cited

“Another Baby Dies as Did Bollinger Boy.” The Chicago Daily Tribune. 8 Dec. 1915. Print.

Desjardins, Michel. “The Sexualized Body of the Child: Parents and the Politics of ‘Voluntary’ Sterilization of People Labeled Intellectually Disabled.” Sex and Disability. Ed. Robert McCruer and Anna Mollow. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. Print.

Parens, Erik and Adrienne Asch. “The Disability Rights Critique of Prenatal Testing: Reflections and Recommendations.” Special Supplement, Hastings Center Report 29, no. 5 (1999): S1-S22. Print.

Saxton, Marsha et al. “Reproductive Rights.” Encyclopedia of American Disability History. Ed. Susan Burch. Vol. 3. New York: Facts on File, 2009. Print.

Shapiro, Joseph. No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1994. Print.

Solinger, Rickie. Reproductive Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.