Utah Is Searching for Forced Sterilization Survivors in the State to… ‘Apologize’

One victim was sterilized for allegedly cheating on her husband; another, a Black incarcerated man, for being an “accused homosexual.” There were more than 800.

Utah Is Searching for Forced Sterilization Survivors in the State to… ‘Apologize’
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On Wednesday, a study in The Lancet Regional Health – Americas by researchers from the University of Utah estimated that 830 people were sterilized against their will by the state of Utah between 1925 and 1974. Victims were targeted if they were deemed “sexual deviants” or “habitually sexually criminal, insane, idiotic, imbecile, feebleminded, or epileptic.” One woman was sterilized for allegedly cheating on her husband on multiple occasions; another, a Black incarcerated man, for being an “accused homosexual.” Other victims included a rape victim and a woman who experienced a stillbirth; many were teenagers, and at least one was under the age of 10. The paper counts 54 people forcibly sterilized by the state who may still be alive today.

Despite these findings, the state government seems unwilling to materially compensate survivors. The Salt Lake Tribune notes that no Utah governor has ever publicly acknowledged this aspect of the state’s history. A spokesperson for current Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R) didn’t respond to the Tribune’s request for comment. Cox’s office responded to a request for comment by directing Jezebel to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. In a statement issued to Jezebel and the Tribune, the department said it’s “in the process of trying to identify any individuals still living who underwent these procedures.”

“We plan to issue personal apologies to any individuals we are able to identify. While an apology cannot right the wrongs that were committed, we recognize the importance of acknowledging and understanding this history so we can learn from it and do better both now and in the future,” the statement continued. The department also claimed that it’s implemented new measures to “focus on making sure a [disabled] person can live their life as independently as possible—including having the option to marry or have a family if that is what a person wants.”

There’s a glaring problem with Utah’s tepid apology to victims: It frames nonconsensual sterilization as a relic of the past. But per the Tribune, since 2017, Utah judges have heard 11 forced sterilization cases, and in 10 of these cases allowed the sterilizations to move forward.

A spokesperson for the department told Jezebel its “first priority is to determine whether there are individuals still living in the state impacted by this inhumane practice so that we can provide a formal and official apology.” The department’s “search for survivors is in early stages,” but “as of right now, there are no additional plans beyond that.”

For context, last January, California launched a $4.5 million fund for reparations for forced sterilization survivors. California has reportedly struggled to reach survivors and disperse the funds, but at the very least, the bill recognized a need for material compensation for victims. North Carolina and Virginia have similarly offered reparations.

Last year, the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) and Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network (AWN) published a report showing that 31 states and the District of Columbia continue to allow nonconsensual sterilizations targeting disabled and incarcerated people and migrants through policies that give judges significant leeway to decide whether someone can or can’t consent to being sterilized. Both Utah and California are among these states.

Between 1997 and 2013, doctors in California sterilized roughly 1,400 incarcerated people. As recently as 2020, an ICE doctor reportedly performed unwanted hysterectomies on migrant women at a detention center in Georgia, also among the 31 states named in the report. And throughout Britney Spears’ conservatorship between 2007 and 2021, she testified that she was forced to have an IUD despite wanting to grow her family.

At the height of the eugenics movement in the U.S. in the early 20th century, at least 70,000 people in 32 states were subjected to involuntary sterilizations. This practice was legal due to the 1927 Supreme Court decision Buck v. Bell. But during World War II, most states ditched their original forced sterilization laws given the direct ties between eugenics and Nazism. Per the NWLC and AWN’s report, this only paved the way for “a new type of forced sterilization law” in most states, allowing judges to retain the power to make these determinations.

Speaking to Jezebel last year, Ma’ayan Anafi, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, also raised the issue of so-called sex, race, and disability-selective abortion bans, allow anti-abortion lawmakers to “claim they’re acting on behalf of disabled people, of people of color.” In reality, Anafi said, they’re “really attacking the reproductive rights of disabled people and people of color,” who are more likely to be singled out and harmed by these laws.

Laws permitting forced sterilizations remain prevalent to this day. Survivors remain, too, and in Utah, they’re being offered the very bare minimum while the horrific practice continues.

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