Women from Different Backgrounds

Below are some of the many cases that involve sterilizations in the United States and information on sterilization of women from different ethnic backgrounds. 

African American women:

After the baby boom era, African American women in poverty were accused of becoming pregnant to receive welfare aid. They were also affected by the "Mississippi appendectomies," which was the forced sterilization of poor African American women in the South by medical staff at teaching hospitals [9].

Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf:

The sterilization of two African American girls, twelve-year-old Minnie Lee and fourteen-year-old Mary Alice Relf in Montogomery, Alabama. 

The girls had sterilization surgery after the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, which was funded by the Montgomery Community Action Committe, discovered that a birth prevention drug, Depo-Provera, was causing cancer in animal test subjects [9]. 

The mother of the girls stated a social worker told her to sign a document that she did not know consented to the sterilization of her daughters. She thought she was signing the authorization to continue the Depo-Provera drug for her daughters [9]. She stated that the social worker who told her to sign the document knew she could not read, and instead of reading the document to her, she told her to sign next to the "X" symbol [9]. 

The case of Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf led to the National Welfare Rights Organization using its platform to demand an investigation at the federal level of "Mississippi appendectomies," which was the unconsented sterilization of African American women in the South [9]. 

Nial Ruth Cox:

Nial Ruth Cox filed a lawsuit against North Carolina because officials threatened to stop her family's welfare checks if she did not agree to get surgically sterilized [9].

At the time, Cox was living with her mother and eight siblings, who relied on state welfare aid because her father passed away.

On November 24, 1964, Cox became gave birth at the age of seventeen and could not formally give consent to a sterilization procedure. Therefore, a welfare-case worker told Cox's mother that if their family wanted to continue to receive welfare aid, then Cox needed to have her tubes temporary tied. Cox's mother was not explained the surgery into further depth [9].

Cox's situation shows how women who have a lower economic status are affected by people trying to  control their reproductive rights, and they are refused economic/social aid from institutions when they do not conform to state's demands [9]. 

Pamphlet for Native Americans

Image meant to display that less children equals greater wealth.

Native American women:

Native American women who visited Indian Health Service hospitals were often sterilized without their consent. Indian Health Service institutions engaged in attempting to control the Native American population through their services [9]. Most Native American women who lived on reservations went to Indian Health Service (IHS) institutions for their health care. From 1970 to 1976, IHS institutions sterilized from 25% to 42% of young Native American women, which was seen as a method to reduce the Native American population by tribal advocates [9]. 


An example is of a twenty-six-year-old Native American woman who requested a womb transplant because she was ready to start a family. However, her doctor discovered that a medical official in an Indian Health Service institution had sterilized her six years earlier because of her past experience of alcoholism [9]. 

Norma Jean Serena:

In 1970, a Native American woman named Norma Jean Serena was sterilized without her consent in western Pennsylvania [9]. 

A welfare worker from Armstrong County Welfare Services in Pennsylvania went to visit Serena's home after they received a complaint. The person who made the complaint stated that Serena was living in unsafe conditions with her two children with an African American man that was not her partner [11]. 

Social workers took Serena's children, who were both under the age of four, to Children's Hospital in Pittsburg for medical exams. The medical official stated the children were "healthy and alert," but the social workers told Serena that the children were too sick to leave the hospital [9]. 

Serena was pregnant at the time and her child was taken from her after she gave birth and placed in foster care like her other children. The Child Welfare and Board Assistance stated that Serena was too sick to care for her newborn. Afterwards, Serena was sterilized in August in 1970. 

Serena filed a lawsuit against the Child Welfare and Board Assistance, the hospital, and social workers for taking her children from her and sterilizing her without her consent. In 1973, Serena's children were returned to her custody and she was awarded $17,000. However, she lost her lawsuit against the social workers and physicians involved in her sterilization. The doctor who sterilized her stated he explained the procedure to her and she "demonstrated an understanding of it" [9]. 

Serena's case demonstrates how economic status was a factor used by physicians to sterilize women of color. 

Latinx American women:

In the state of California and the Sun Belt, the Mexican American women were targetted by medical staff for sterilizations as a way to minimize welfare payments and reduce their population size in the United States [9]. 

Puerto Rican and African American women in the state of New York were also targets of medical staff who believed in the false label of "the welfare queen" [9].  

*The welfare queen was a termed used to describe women who received excessive welfare payments through fraud [9]. 

Puerto Rican women were believed to have "hyperfertility" and their economic status (often labeled as poverty), led to physicians viewing them as "appropriate candidates" of sterilizations. 

Why do minority women tend to be sterilized more often than white women?

A major factor that has led to the sterilization of many Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Native American women is the language barrier between physicians and their clients who do not speak fluent English [9].

Medical staff also pressure women who do not speak English to give permission to procedures through documents in English. The lack of translators for non-English speaking patients is another barrier for women of color [9].

Amother factor that leads to sterile women is the term "tying of tubes" used to refer to sterilization, which confuses women into thinking they are having a temporary procedure performed [9].

Elena Orozco:

Elena Orozco was sterilized after she signed a document she believed consented to tying her tubes, not to sterilization. 

She stated, 

"When I was signing, I understood it to tie my tubes, not to sterilize. If they would put the word 'sterilization' there, I would not have signed the papers" [9].


A  women was sterilized without her consent at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles County Medical Center due to confusion between "tying tubes" and sterilization. 

She stated, 

" We [her husband and herself] both believed that my tubes could be untied later if I desired to have more children . . . . At no time did any member of the medical center's staff inform me that my tubes were going to be cut and I would be permanently sterilized" [9]. 


[9] Kluchin, Rebecca M. "Sterilizing “Unfit” Women." In Fit to Be Tied: Sterilization and Reproductive Rights in America, 1950-1980, 73-113. Rutgers University Press, 2009. Accessed October 11, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hj13v.7

Prev Next