Take My Hand: A Look into Forced Sterilization of Poor and Marginalized Groups

When I first read a few years ago that women detained by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in detention centers were being sterilized involuntarily, I thought that cannot be true.  After reading “Take My Hand” by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, I now understand the US Government has been using sterilization on the poor, especially on people of color over the last 100 years.  And I’m mad as hell about it.

Take My Hand” is a historical fiction novel loosely based on the 1973 Relf v. Weinberger case where two sisters, ages twelve and fourteen, were sterilized without their consent in Montgomery, Alabama by a federally funded agency.  In this story, we follow Civil Townsend, a nurse hired by a clinic to help women and girls with their reproductive health.  She believes that all women and girls should take care of their reproductive health.  Her mission is to help them.

She is responsible for administering Depo-Provera shots to two girls living in a one room shanty where they live with their father and grandmother.  They live in complete squalor. 

The girls are ages 11 and 13.  The youngest does not speak and has developmental issues.  When Civil learns that the youngest has not even had her first menstrual cycle, she questions why the girl is required to receive birth control.

Her friend, Ty, informs her the shot is not FDA approved and causes cancer in animal subjects.  This alarms Civil and she realizes this may be similar to the Tuskegee experiments.  She decides to stop giving the girls the shots and either get them on birth control pills or altogether stop administering birth control to them since they are not sexually active.

But her supervisor is monitoring the situation and notices the doctored reports.  She shows up at the girls’ home and gets dad and grandma (both cannot read) to sign a slip of paper to take the girls to the ‘clinic’ for their shots.  At least, that’s what they thought they were signing.

When Civil visits to let the youngest girl know she got her into a special school, she discovers the girls were taken to a hospital to be sterilized.  By the time she gets to the hospital, it’s already too late.

Ty’s parents are lawyers and decide to help the family get justice for what has happened.  A young white man is assigned to the case to help them.  It catches the eye of Senator Ted Kennedy and he brings the family to Washington, DC to tell a Senate committee what happened.  The story makes national news and more stories surface from across the nation of women and girls forced to be sterilized by federally funded agencies.

Reports appear of mothers in the midst of childbirth forced to sign papers that will allow the doctor to sterilize them after the birth of their child.  The doctors threaten to not deliver the child if they refuse to sign the papers.  In California, doctors report that poor Hispanic women are forcibly sterilized.  More and more stories come to light as to how bad the situation really is.

We have found that sterilization is the rule, not the exception.  It is widely endemic in this country.  It is a form of reproductive control.

Last year we did a survey and found that although two-thirds of federally funded clinics’ patients were white and only one third are Black, 43 percent of those sterilized are Black.  A report from the United States government…found that between the summer of 1972 and the summer of 1973, twenty-five thousand adults were sterilized in federally funded clinics.  Of these, 153 were under the age of eighteen.

Take My Hand” is terrifying and shocking as you learn that this atrocity happened and continues to happen.  This is a war waged against women, especially those who are poor.

Our bodies belonged to us.  Poor, disabled, it didn’t matter.  These were our bodies, and we had the right to decide what to do with them.  It was as if they were just taking our bodies from us, as if we didn’t even belong to ourselves.

The fact that involuntary sterilization still occurs is unfathomable.  How is it that an administration that is anti-abortion and pro-life is also pro-sterilization?  

There’s also a conversation that underlies all of this and that is the importance of women’s sexual and reproductive health.  Throughout the world, talking about any of this is taboo.  From first periods to menopause, no one talks about women’s health.  It is shunned.  In some parts of the world, women and girls do not have access to sanitary napkins or tampons.  Girls end up dropping out of school when they get their first periods, because they do not have access to something as basic as pads or tampons.

Sexual health is health care.

Women needed access to reliable birth control and information about their reproductive health.

One item that is very important to mention is that many of these women and girls felt like they had no choice but to accept sterilization.  Those who accept government assistance (welfare, food stamps, housing, Medicaid) are subjected to constant government intervention.  Government officials constantly came and  went out of their homes.  For some people, they were threatened that if they did not submit to sterilization, mandatory birth control, etc., they could lose their government assistance.

In some cases, people were not given the proper information on sterilization and Depo-Provera.  They were not told that the surgery was not reversible.  Side effects of Depo-Provera were not discussed.  At times, clinics were not advised on the procedures regarding sterilization or the administering of it.  Women and girls were not given alternatives to birth control.  For thousands of women and girls, their right to have children was taken away from them without their consent.

That’s the most important thing here…their right was taken from them without their consent.

Women in prison as recently as 2006-2010 faced forced sterilization.  Less than a hundred years ago, sterilization was forced on those institutionalized.  Many women during that time were not mentally ill.  A woman with irregular periods, or a woman whose husband wanted to rid themselves of their wife to marry another woman, could be institutionalized.

During the Trump administration, rumors of detained female immigrants who were forced to be sterilized made the news.  But the only response became disgust, and then yesterday’s news.

The war on women needs to end.  We don’t hear of men undergoing forced sterilization because they are poor or an immigrant.  Their right to their own bodies is not under attack by the government.  But for women, we are constantly threatened.  It needs to stop.  We need to stop being a taboo.  Our reproductive health and overall women’s health needs to be considered important in the medical field.  When I want to talk about menopause and what happens to the body changing, I need my doctor to be able to know what exactly that is and advise me on what to expect.  When we are provided a vaccine, make it not just for men in mind, but women, too.  Sanitary napkins and tampons should not be taxed.  They are a necessity.  It should be covered as a health need.

Why not provide adequate birth control to all women?  There would be less abortions if women had the proper medical care and access to it.  Give them other alternatives to birth control.  Sterilization should be a choice, not something forced upon women by the government.  Truthfully, I have to ask, why is the government so obsessed with controlling a woman’s body?  Women must really scare them.

I have to say, this book made me mad.  It is a difficult read, but necessary.  Everyone needs to understand the way war is raged upon women, especially those who live in poverty and are a person of color.  Women are not yesterday’s news.  We are victimized daily in a numerous amount of ways, because we are women.  It needs to end.

[All quotes are from “Take My Hand” by Dolen Perkins-Valdez] [Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for purposes of a review. All opinions are my own. This post contains affiliate links.]