Advocates for the thousands of Native women who were victimized by such programs say another motivation lurked behind the horrific abuses. “This was a concerted attack on Indian American women that constituted genocide,” says Andrea Carmen, a former sterilization activist from the Yaqui Nation who now serves as executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council.
The advocates say apologies in recent years by North Carolina and a handful of other states are a start, but the real healing can come only after an apology at the national level. They say that’s what it will take to combat the racism that led to the sterilization programs and is still evident today.
The list of abuses is varied but invariably shocking: Native women going in for C-sections and coming out with tubal ligations; Native girls going in for tonsillitis and coming out with tubal ligations; young Native women being given hysterectomies after being told that they were reversible; Native women being used in Depo-Provera trials without being informed of the risks; Indian Health Service (IHS) workers implanting the controversial Norplant capsules in a patient’s arm, but claiming to lack the training to remove it, even when it caused complications.
Carmen was a college student in the 1970s when she began to encounter similar stories of abuse. She recalls her conversation with one 30-something student: “She raised her blouse up, and she had been sterilized in three different ways.” She was also told of a woman who was unable to deliver her full-term baby—and discovered that her cervix had been sewn shut without her knowledge.
Carmen and some of her classmates formed the Coalition Against Sterilization Abuse (CASA), in the early 1970s. The group, which had famed Native activist Lehman Brightman as its advisor, hosted conferences, rallied public awareness and support, and forged alliances with other communities that had been similarly victimized: African American, Puerto Rican and Latin American women among them.
Eventually, help came for many of the sterilization victims. A few years after CASA got its start, a Choctaw/Cherokee doctor named Connie Pinkerton-Uri began to publish horrifying histories of sterilization abuses. She released a groundbreaking study in 1974 that claimed one in four Native women had been sterilized without their consent. South Dakota Senator James Abourezk commissioned a General Accounting Office study to investigate the complaints of Native women; those results were published in 1976. The study has since been criticized for its limited scope, because it used only case records with no additional investigation and covered just four IHS Service Areas: Albuquerque; Oklahoma; Phoenix; and Aberdeen, South Dakota. Still, it documented that more than 3,400 Native women had been sterilized under such policies between 1973 and 1976.