Forced sterilization in America and Canada

We’re lucky to have a choice about our birth control options. Some people, worldwide, have not been given that choice. Forced sterilizations have been performed in the United States and Canada as well as worldwide. Find out why these atrocities were committed and learn about your birth control rights.


Eugenics is the practice of trying to make the human species better. This is the bid to build a faster, smarter and better human being. Many sterilization programs, including those in numerous US states, have been created to improve the gene pool. These forced sterilizations targeted people with intellectual disabilities or those with physical disabilities, such as being blind.


In 1897, Michigan became the first state to enact legislation on forced sterilization. This legislature has not been adopted; nor did Pennsylvania’s efforts a few years later. The first state to introduce sterilization laws was Indiana, in 1907; Washington and California followed suit in 1907. In 1927, the famous Buck v. Bell sterilization case was heard by the highest courts, legalizing forced sterilizations, and the era of most forced sterilizations began. In 1942, the Skinner v. Oklahoma case ruled that you cannot sterilize someone as a punishment, partially curtailing forced sterilizations. By 1963, most states had retired sterilization laws, although many of them remained on the statute books longer: North Carolina did not revoke their laws until 1974. About 70,000 Americans were sterilized against their will.

Buck to Bell

In 1924, Virginia passed a law requiring all mentally retarded persons to be sterilized for eugenic reasons. In 1927, Carrie Bell was ordered to be sterilized. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. explained that the sanctity of the gene pool outweighed the physical rights of one person. The reason for sterilizing Carrie was that she was reportedly mentally slower and had a history of prostitution. Current science has shown that Carrie was probably sterilized because of her and her mother’s promiscuous ways.


As the case of Carrie Bell shows, women were often forcibly sterilized for unjust reasons. While men were allowed to be sexually promiscuous (and often encouraged to be), women were meant to be chaste. Having children out of wedlock can lead to sterilization. Some women were sterilized without knowing it. Many of the women forcibly sterilized were barely female, often as young as 14 or even younger.


In many states and provinces, racism was a motivating factor in mandatory sterilizations. In North Carolina, for example, many black women were sterilized when they went in to give birth to their babies. In Alberta, eugenics is said to be used to prevent more babies from being born with mental or physical disabilities. However, too many Métis women were sterilized. The Métis people are an indigenous people, who have a legacy of First Nations mixed with European settlers. It is possible that the government was concerned because they represented miscegenation, that is, the mixing of racial genes.

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Just as gender and race are factors in forced sterilizations, socioeconomic status is also a factor. Often gender, race and class were all combined. It was more often than not the black people who were poor, and it was often the black poor women who were sterilized against their will. Some argued that sterilizing poor people was a blessing because it enabled a family to care for the children they already had.

Your rights

You have the right not to be sterilized without your consent. Regardless of physical or mental disabilities, no one in Canada or the United States may legally be sterilized without consent.

You can choose to have yourself sterilized for your method of contraception. Birth control remains in your hands, not the governments. Learn about your birth control options to avoid unwanted pregnancies and exercise your freedom of choice.