a tale of rights and wrongs
Posted: Friday, 09-Sep-2005 15:48:32 EDT
    The boy came to the man's house. The man sat on the step, writing. The boy was so familiar with the man that he no longer even announced himself. He simply sat down next to him and waited.

After a moment, without looking up, the man began.

Once upon a time, our people lived elsewhere. It was a good land, a nice land, but for many reasons, we decided that we had to leave. And so we came here, to this land, this country.

In this land in which we live, there was another people before us. We no longer know what they called themselves; we call them the Lost Peoples. They were as many others; some were quiet and gentle, some were more warlike, some had large, advanced civilizations. The Lost Peoples were many and they were varied.

At first, we lived quietly side by side. For at first, there was room enough for all, land enough for all, food enough for all. We made agreements with them for land, for food, for other things, and all was well, at first.

But then we wanted more. More land, more room, more foods. For we simply bred faster than the Lost Peoples. We also saw that many of the Lost Peoples were simply dying off. For we had brought foreign disease into this land, and they were unable to resist diseases they had never seen before.

It took many years, many battles, many epidemics. Sometimes the deaths were by accident, but more often we simply killed them because they were ... in our way. Soon, we had killed so many that most people never saw more than one or two in their lives. And that is when we began to call them the Lost Peoples, and when their names were lost to history. Those few remaining Lost Peoples were sent into corners of the land they had once inhabited from sea to shining sea.

And then we realized that we had not done well by the Lost Peoples. And when we realized this, many thought that the killing and death would stop, that perhaps the Lost Peoples would someday again become what they were.

But then it was decided to give the death another face.

Recently on ABC's 20/20, one segment dealt with the forced sterilization of "mental defectives" by the states of Michigan and Indiana. Not that they were the only ones doing it, of course--it was done in almost every state.

It turns out to have essentially been a sort of blunt yet sophisticated form of class warfare. Middle-class and upper-class people would go into poor areas as theoretically well-meaning social workers; appalled at the poverty and at the childrearing methods of the poor, they would then decide that this was evidence of mental deficiency, and that people so situated should not be allowed to reproduce. Most doctors, being not only of the same social class but in a profession that was then considerably more paternalistic than it is today, would simply sign off on this; seldom was any real mental evaluation undertaken. People were, of course, not given any real opportunity for informed consent (which is, in any event, a relatively recent innovation in medical care)--after all, if they were mentally defective, how could they give meaningful consent? There were some rubber-stamp court proceedings in which the people being sterilized seldom understood what was going on (not because of mental deficiency, but because nobody would explain it to them), in which doctors were given the go-ahead to perform their wondrous deeds.

The people interviewed felt an understandable indignation, an understandable anger that this had happened to them and their relatives. Of course they were angry. The basic human desire to reproduce had been denied, for no good reason. The state had set itself to be their god, without their choice, without even their knowledge, and made decisions which affected them and their future, in some cases ended a family.

One thing that people said over and over, however, was "How can this possibly happen here? In the United States? How can someone's rights be violated like that?"

And of course, the only thing to say is: why not here?

Consider: As a matter of policy, Native American women have been forcibly sterilized in this country for decades. They've been told that it was to cure migraines, they've been told that it was to cure appendicitis, sometimes it's been used as a club--either consent to sterilization or your children will be taken away from you.

The typical defense offered regarding such things is "Well, that was long ago. People don't do that any more. Once we saw what the Nazis had done in Germany, we realized how wrong it was." Even if that sort of moral relativism was true--even if seeing it taken to extremes might have jarred some people into seeing how wrong it was--it's factually untrue.

"Mental defectives" were systematically sterilized without their consent at least into the 50s. This despite the fact that most of them weren't particularly "defective", that most of them were never even informed that it was happening to them. They were deemed unworthy to allow to breed; it was felt that not only might they be unable to care for the children, but the resulting children would probably be "defectives" themselves. The "defect" would thus be perpetuated and would contaminate the American polity, and this could not be allowed.

Native American women were systematically sterilized without their consent until at least 1979; according to one source, it continued into the 1990s. More than 30 years after the end of World War II. As one person points out, so many Native American women of childbearing age were sterilized that the policy looked to provide for the complete extermination of Native Americans within a few generations, if continued. This government policy was, ironically enough, carried out by health services branches of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is in theory dedicated to providing for the welfare of Native Americans. Apparently, the definition of "welfare" in this case was quite unique and amazingly broad.

Today, many judges try to force abusive women and Welfare mothers onto Norplant, a form of long term birth control. Granting that it's understandable--though not necessarily legal or ethical--that people would want to deny abusive parents the opportunity to create more people to abuse. Granted that it's understandable--if not legal or ethical--that you would want children to be born in the best circumstances possible, and that does not include situations in which a parent cannot even pay for themselves. Nonetheless, surely such decisions are nothing else but class warfare under another name. Forcing people to stop reproducing in exchange for sustenance, in exchange for continued--if restricted--freedom. The decision is that stark, that unyielding.

Critics will say, at least this is temporary. Forcing someone to use a long-term birth control device generally means only that they can't reproduce for a limited amount of time. If they can get themselves a job, get off of the state's dole during that time, they can reproduce as much as they want when the device expires. If they can prove that they won't abuse again (and how would they do so?), they can reproduce again.

Perhaps. Perhaps.

Leave aside the child abusers, for the moment. Look only at the poor, the so-called welfare mothers. Consider that many have spent much of their reproductive years on Welfare, and have few job skills to offer; indeed, consider that some have lived their entire lives either on welfare or desperately poor. Consider that many many people were born into dire poverty, yet went on to make something of themselves, to contribute to this country and others. If the technology had existed, if such a policy had existed, they might never have been born.

But leave that aside. After all, whatever contributions the unborn may make to society are unrealized potential, nothing more.

Consider the ethical side. Consider that abstract concept of rights. Surely if they mean anything, they mean that you should have some sort of meaningful say, at least, in whether or not you reproduce.

Of course, the question is, do they, in fact, mean anything at all?

The boy thought long and hard after this story, considering. Finally he said, "That was not a nice story."

The man agreed. "No. It was not meant to be nice."

"But will there be more Lost Peoples? Will they be able to be what they once were, again?"

The man only shook his head. "That will be up to you and your friends to decide, in the future. It may well be that we're all Lost People now. That it is simply too late to come back from where we've gone."

The boy stood, brushed off his clothes. "You do not believe that," he said, with certainty.

The man only shook his head again. "I don't know what I believe any more," he said quietly.


More Information

Breeding Better Citizens: A hidden history of the United States (ABCNews-20/20)

Norplant: A contraceptive with the potential for abuse (American Civil Liberties Union)

Broken Treaties, Empty Promises: An Introduction to Native American Women's Reproductive Health Issues (Women of Color Partnership)

Forced Sterilizations: Sterilization of Native American Women (Bruce Johanssen)

A Look at the Indian Health Service Policy of Sterilization, 1972-1976 by Charles R. England


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