Dare Call It Genocide

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Dare Call It Genocide

by Al Huebner

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 7, No. 2, March 1975, p. 7 & 20–21

In late November of 1974, three Los Angeles women filed claims for $2 million each against Los Angeles County-USC (University of Southern California) Medical Center, contending that they were sterilized without proper consent. The women, aged 24, 26, and 32, said their signatures on consent forms were sought while they were in pain and under sedation immediately prior to undergoing childbirth by caesarian section in 1972 and 1973. Two of the women were led to believe that the forms they signed were for temporary sterilizations. The third woman said she was not aware a sterilization operation had even been performed and wore an intrauterine device for two years until she learned she had, in fact, been sterilized.

The actions are believed to be the first medical malpractice suits in the country filed against a hospital for alleged sterilization abuses. The day after the claims were filed the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, expressing great shock at developments, ordered a probe of sterilization practices at County-USC. The Supervisor’s surprise was itself surprising in view of the activities of the Committee to End Forced Sterilization (CEFS) which had begun the preceding June and included, in addition to extensive interviewing of women who had been sterilized, conducting numerous public (and widely publicized) meetings, leafletting in various parts of the city, and a demonstration at the hospital.

The CEFS is a coalition of people from Chicano, Black, White left, and health radical groups. Although it was organized around exposing and putting an end to forced sterilization in Los Angeles, CEFS members and supporters have emphasized the relationship of what has been happening at County-USC to forced sterilization in other parts of the U.S. and, largely under U.S. domination, in other parts of the world. Consequently, while direct investigation and exposure of coerced sterilization has been kept to local cases as of this writing, we have considered it essential to interpret the findings in terms of national and international currents of population control.

The response of the local media, notably the L.A. Times, offered an example of co-optation of an issue which merits some consideration. The actions of CEFS were ignored until the lawsuits were filed and the county had to react. At this point the Times ran articles concerning forced sterilization on two consecutive days. The first focussed on interviews with doctors conducted by members of Ralph Nader’s Health Research Group concerning sterilization abuse in hospitals.1 Corroboration by the Times of material developed during some of the interviews was reported in tones of barely restrained self-praise.

Public exposure of direct quotations from some of these interviews was not completely without value. Even though only short fragments appeared in print, the incredible power which a physician can exert was revealed in stark contrast to the helplessness of the patient, and particularly the poor White, Black, or Third World patient. But this value was more than offset by assertions throughout the article by other doctors and by hospital administrators, never challenged and never analyzed, that the physicians who pushed for medically unnecessary sterilizations were deeply concerned about overpopulation and the rising cost of welfare.

The main thrust of the second article was that the Department of Health, Education and Welfare had already drafted regulations assuring protection of the rights of candidates for sterilization, but these regulations had not been implemented because of bureaucratic inefficiency.2 The HEW guidelines probably wouldn’t he known at the hospital unless the obstetrics/gynecology department head “happened to read them in the Federal Register…” Dr. E.J. Quilligan, chief of professional services at Women’s Hospital of County-USC and chairperson of the obstetrics/gynecology department there, did not “recall having seen them.” He went on to say that “for some time, we’ve been studying ways of improving our informed consent procedures. And some of those under study are similar to the federal guide-lines.”

The denouement was contained in a Times article published a few davs later.3 It noted, reassurringly, that “Federal, state and local officials are moving on a ‘top-priority’ basis to insure enforcement of national guidelines designed to protect patients from possible ‘voluntary’ sterilization abuses…” These “multilevel actions followed disclosure by the Times last week that detailed U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare sterilization regulations were not being followed at the giant Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.” The lesson is similar to the one we have been supposed to take from Watergate: the system, though inherently good and just sometimes falters; it is restored by the efforts of sincere reformers and a crusading press.

The CEFS, its role in exposing forced sterilizations at the hospital, and its program for ending forced sterilizations, were never mentioned in any of the Times articles. Attempted media co-optation of the issue raised by the CEFS has only intensified the campaign to organize against coerced sterilizations and other aspects of population control. Current crises in the U.S. (e.g., widespread and increasing unemployment), and in other parts of the world (e.g., worsening famine), lend urgency to these efforts and underscore their political importance.

Puerto Rico provides a clear, if extreme, example of the relationship of population control to unemployment. Thirty-five percent of the island’s women of childbearing age have been sterilized according to information recently presented to the U.N. Decolonization Committee by leaders of the Puerto Rican Socialist and Puerto Rican Independence parties.4 Massive sterilization, combined with “organized emigration” to the U.S., is hoped to hold down or at least maintain the current unemployment rate of 30 percent, as the U.S. continues to change the island’s light-industry and agricultural economy to mining and refining center for petrochemical products. The latter industries, less labor-intensive than those of the present economy, necessitate a reduction in the island’s population.

In the U.S. proper, the average percentage of sterilization is much lower than in the colony of Puerto Rico, yet there are strong indications that the percentage is much higher among Black, Brown, and Native American women than among White women. The unemployment rate and the sterilization rate mimic each other chillingly.

As for the so-called “World Food Crisis” and its relationship to population (and therefore population control), the prevailing mythology was well-summarized in a recent NBC “white paper.” A series of floods, droughts, and storms, combined with shortages and high costs created by Arab oil politics, have decreased world food production somewhat. The central problem, however, is that enourmous increases of food production are needed, year after year, to keep up with uncontrolled population growth in the Third World. The moral question faced by the U.S., then, is to what extent should it draw on its own food resources to feed people who will not curb their population (in spite of all past U.S. assistance in that regard)?

NBC chose to ignore completely considerations such as the role which imperialism has played in maintaining (even increasing) class differences and gross maldistribution of wealth; the need of the poor in these societies to solve their poverty problem precisely by having large families; and the compelling evidence that social and economic development are prerequisites, rather than consequences, of a lower birth rate. NBC chose to focus on India, which has failed to contain its problems, rather than on China, which so far has been able to deal with theirs very successfully.5 By using overpopulation as a diversion, NBC and the rest of the media are preparing the people of this country to view unparalleled famine on the evening news, firm in the conviction that the blame for it belongs squarely on the victim.

Meanwhile, the population control lobby—the foundations and agencies which are controlled by the U.S. ruling elite6—continue their basic strategy. Third World governments are pressed to step up sterilization programs under the threat of exclusion from the U.S. food aid program*, rejection of applications for World Bank loans, and other forms of coercion. They perceive this as the way to minimize opposition to continued imperialist exploitation. When population continues to increase anyway (because rational conditions which would lead to smaller family size are not present), they use this increase as a scapegoat for the ongoing poverty and hunger in Third World countries.

The forced sterilization of women in this country and at U.S. instigation in the Third World is an outrage. For purely humanitarian reasons, it must be exposed and stopped wherever it occurs. But there are compelling political reasons for doing so as well. Indeed, the fight to stop coerced sterilization can only be effective when its political meaning is fully drawn.

When it became public knowledge that forced sterilization had taken place at County-USC Medical Center, apologists contended that a handful of misguided doctors were at fault. An adequate response to this diversion requires that population control be analyzed within the context of poverty, unemployment, a health care system for which health care delivery is not a major goal, colonial exploitation, and other features which characterize U.S. capitalism. The struggle to end forced sterilization is the struggle to end the abuses of capital-ism and to construct a decent society.

Al Huebner

The struggle against forced sterilization and closely related matters will be facilitated by closer communication between active individuals and groups. If you would like more information or can furnish useful information please contact SESPA, P.O. Box 368, Canoga Park, Calif. 91303

* Last summer the U.S. refused Bangladesh loans to buy urgently needed food because Bangladesh exported gunny sacks to Cuba, grounds for exclusion from the food aid program. This ban was waived for Egypt, however, because, according to President Ford, food to Egypt was “in the national interest.”7

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  1. Los Angeles Times, December 2, 1974.
  2. Los Angeles Times, December 3, 1974.
  3. Los Angeles Times, December 8, 1974.
  4. Guardian, November 13, 1974.
  5. Stavis, B., “China’s Green Revolution,” Monthly Review, Vol. 26, No. 5, October 1974.
  6. See, for example, Weissman, S., “Why the Population Bomb is a Rockefeller Baby,” Ramparts, Vol. 8, No. 11, May 1970.
  7. Worker’s Power, October 17-30,1974.