In the 20th century, the U.S. and Canada carried out a quiet genocide against Indigenous women through coerced sterilization.
In 2019, it’s still happening.
By Ankita Rao, September 9, 2019
Content Warning: This story contains sensitive details about reproductive violence.
S.A.T.* wanted her daughter in the room.
It was the second time she’d ever spoken about her experience with anybody outside her family, friends and lawyer—the first was with an Indigenous reporter. And she wanted her oldest daughter to hear about what it meant to be forcibly sterilized.
It happened in 2001 when she was 29, after her sixth child, about an hour from where we sat in Regina, the capital of Canada’s agricultural province, Saskatchewan. The pregnancy and the delivery at Saskatoon Hospital had been routine. S.A.T., who is of the Cree Nation, had been placed in a hospital room with another Indigenous woman.
And then, she said, her son was whisked away and she was wheeled into an operating room. Scared they were going to cut into her, she kept saying, “What are you doing?” and “Please don’t do this.” She was ignored and transferred into another bed by a brusque man—probably the physician—and a team of nurses.
Telling this part of her story, S.A.T. became nervous. She glanced at her daughter, a 20-something young mother with rainbow-dyed hair and a supportive smile. S.A.T. drew a breath. “I didn’t know this would be so hard,” she said before she continued.
The nurses angled her in a strange position. A sheet dropped between her upper and lower half so she couldn’t see the procedure.
They gave her another epidural, and as the numbness crept up into her body, she found herself unable to breathe. She continued to say No, she continued to be ignored. And then, a burning smell, a few minutes of metal clinking.
“The doctor, I remember, he looked at me when it was done and said, “Okay, you’re tied, cut and burned, nothing will get through that.”
Sterilization is described as a “permanent method of birth control” by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
For women, this is usually carried out through a tubal ligation—a procedure that closes off the fallopian tube, where fertilization occurs—but can also happen through hysterectomies, induced abortions, and other procedures. When sterilization is forced, however, it becomes a human rights violation, and a tactic of genocide designed to control or eliminate a population.
In North America, forced and coerced sterilization of Indigenous women is usually described as something of the past, a dark blemish in American history and a symptom of colonization and the 20th century eugenics movement.
The data is sparse but significant: Anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of the Indigenous women of reproductive age in the U.S. were sterilized in the 1970s.
In Canada, over 1000 Indigenous women were sterilized between 1966 and 1976, according to Karen Stote, researcher and author of An Act of Genocide, one of the only books on the history of forced sterilization in Canada.
In the 1970s, both the U.S. and Canada stopped promoting pro-sterilization policies. But they didn’t outlaw them either.
Then, four years ago, Indigenous women in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan began to come forward to say that this was still happening in Canada.
Brenda Pelletier and Tracy Bannab were the first two women who told the Saskatoon Star Phoenix that they were pressured by staff to sign consent forms for tubal ligations while in the hospital delivering babies.