In 1979, the California Eugenics Law was repealed, but it would take 24 years for the state to acknowledge this atrocious injustice aimed at poor, disabled, and predominantly women of color throughout the state. According to an interview with Professor Alex Stern for NPR, the “state law from 1909 authorized the surgery for people judged to have ‘mental disease,’ which may have been inherited.” To clarify, surgery meant sterilization. The reasoning for such legislation is deeply rooted in the work and research by eugenicist Francis Galton who believed certain genetic dispositions were superior or inferior. Although eugenics was debunked as a pseudoscience, it bred white supremacism, institutionalized racism, and misogyny with ripple effects throughout western history.
From 1909 to 1979 the California eugenics law was in effect and during that time, approximately 800 tubal ligation procedures, according to statistical research, were performed on women and men without their consent. According to Stern, despite the law being dissolved in the late 1970s, 146 female inmates were subjected to forced sterilization between 2006 and 2010. The law targeted black and brown women, predominantly Latina. While there have been stories and articles covering the practice of eugenics and disproving it as a science, it continues to contribute to contemporary practices of genetic surveillance and the constant battle to legislate women’s’ bodies. According to Stern, many of the women sterilized in the 1960s and 1970s were mostly women with Latin American last names, poor, and immigrants with very little to no support to help navigate the American healthcare system. bell hooks aptly described America as a country built on a structure of ‘white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy.’ I argue this structure, which continues to plague the United States today, extends to and encompasses our medico-legal system as well.
DNA collection and banking have been a deeply contested area of biosurveillance for years. Stern’s research on the California Eugenics Law begs the question: how many more states have buried histories of forced sterilization deep in their records? The prevalence of biometric data collection as a way of policing poor, disabled, and marginalized bodies has a direct correlation to eugenics practices. Aside from historical data, artists working in the realms of genetic determinism offer a unique methodology and approaches to exploring and critiquing science as a vehicle for systemic racism and sexism.
This particular research speaks to the way heteronormativity and white supremacy have gone hand in hand. The history of forced sterilization on women of color in California made it extremely difficult for communities of color to obtain immediate health care reform and reparations. While a registry has been created to capture what Stern, as estimated to be around 800 potential survivors of these procedures, the question that comes to mind, are potential cases around the US that may have similar suppressed or obscured records.
While science is often believed to be objective, much like data and statistics, it can be grossly manipulated to serve specific ideologies. Stepping away from historical frameworks, I have been deeply influenced by the cyberfeminist collective, subRosa. In the SubRosa anthology, Domain Errors!: Cyberfeminist Practices, Emily de Araujo and Lucia Somner created “A Summary History of Eugenic Theories and Practices in the United States,” which outlines the major events in the advancement of eugenics and racial profiling.
How can we ensure updated information is then communicated to the masses in such a way that enables the reader to see exactly how they fit into this larger rubric of theorization? How do we revise and graft onto these methods of resistance that the SubRosa collective have created for the community? Methods may include intervention at the clinical research level or occupying particular scientific and institutionalized spaces to promote inclusion of underrepresented and underserved bodies. What are the ways we can seize (medical and data) systems of oppression and turn genetic surveillance into genetic sousveillance? In Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s performance piece, DNA Spoofing, we see various fictitious methods preventing surveillance of the body. What might it mean for subjects to be given the opportunity to survey the surveyor and reflect back practices to a physician? In which ways can we set up new ethical practices with lasting effects?
The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Domain Errors: Cyberfeminist Practices by the SubRosa Collective
A Summary History of Eugenics Theories and Practices in the United States compiled by Emily de Araujo and Lucia Sommer of the SubRosa Collective