Forced Sterilization in America and Canada

Forced Sterilization in America and Canada

We are lucky to have a choice about our birth control options. Some people, world-wide, have not been given that choice. Forced sterilizations have been performed in the United States and Canada as well as globally. Find out why these atrocities were committed, and learn about your contraceptive 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. Many sterilization programs, including the programs in numerous American states, were created to improve the gene pool. These forced sterilizations focused on mentally disabled people, or people with physical disabilities, such as being blind.


In 1897, Michigan became the first state bring up forced sterilization legislature. This legislature did not pass; nor did Pennsylvania’s attempts 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 famed sterilization case Buck v. Bell was heard in the supreme courts, which legalized forced sterilizations, and began the age of the most forced sterilizations. In 1942 the case Skinner v. Oklahoma ruled that you cannot sterilize someone as a punishment, which partially curtailed forced sterilizations. By 1963, most states had taken sterilization laws out of use, though many of them remained in the law books for longer: North Carolina did not rescind their laws until 1974. Roughly 70,000 Americans were sterilized against their will.

Buck v. Bell

In 1924 Virginia passed a law that stated that all mentally disabled individuals had 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 one person’s physical rights. The reason for sterilizing Carrie was that she was allegedly mentally slower and had a history of prostitution. Current scholarship has demonstrated that Carrie was probably sterilized because of her and her mother’s promiscuous ways.


As the case of Carrie Bell demonstrates, forced sterilizations were often performed on women for unjust reasons. Whereas men were allowed to be sexually promiscuous (and were often encouraged to be), women were meant to be chaste. Having children out of wedlock could lead to sterilization. Some women were sterilized without their knowledge of it. Many of the women who were forcibly sterilized were barely women at all, being often only 14, or even younger.


In many states and provinces, racism was a motivating factor in compulsory sterilizations. In North Carolina, for instance, many black women were sterilized when they went in to give birth to their babies. In Alberta, eugenics was allegedly being used to prevent further babies being born with mental or physical disabilities. However, an overly large proportion of Métis women were sterilized. The Métis people are an aboriginal people, who have a heritage 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.


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 wills. Some argued that sterilizing poor people was a blessing because it allowed a family to take care of the children they already had.

Your Rights

You have a right to not be sterilized without your consent. No matter of physical or mental disabilities, nobody in Canada or the United States is legally allowed to be sterilized without consent.

You can, however, choose to have a sterilization for your method of birth control. Birth control remains in your hands, and not the governments’. Learn more about your birth control options to prevent unwanted pregnancies and to use your power of choice.