by Ayvaunn Penn, Your Black World
On June 24th of this year I covered the story of Janice Black, a 59-year-old North Carolina black woman who believes she was sterilized against her will around the age of about 14 in the 1970’s. To view full story click here. It is believed that Black is one of many affected by The Eugenics Board of North Carolina. NorthCarolinaHistory.org reports:
“From 1933 until 1977, the year the Board closed and the eugenics program in North Carolina ended, the state government had sterilized approximately 7,600 individuals male and female and white and black….The Eugenics Board of North Carolina practiced negative eugenics discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable and undesirable traits. The Eugenics Board approved applications for four types of sterilization: vasectomy and castration for men and salpingectomy, and ovariectomy for women.”
On the 19th day of July, an African-American woman by the name of Jacquelyn N’Jai left a comment on my former article sharing that she believed something similar had happened to her. Upon contacting her for further investigation, it was discovered that her sterilization case occurred during the 1970’s as well. However, there are a few differences between the two cases. First, N’Jai was located in Pennsylvania. Secondly, the Pennsylvania Eugenics movement is estimated to have lasted from 1889 to 1931 according to research conducted by The University of Vermont. It is important to note, however, that the Eugenics movement was not secluded to these respective areas and time periods but swept across the nation at various intervals during the 20th century. According to research conducted by Alamo Colleges:
“The Eugenics movement won substantial recognition in the early 20th century America. By 1941, 33 US states had endorsed sterilization policies. The movement was social, political, and scientific. It reflected the fears of many whites that their once-great nation was threatened by demographic and economic change. Their understanding of the priniciples of genetic inheritance led eugenicists to conclude that genetically defective members of society were rapidly out-reproducing the ‘normal’ members of society at an alarming rate. These defectives included the ‘feeble-minded,’ criminals, the sexually wanton, epileptics, the insane, and non-white races, and they were passing on their ‘deleterious’ genes at the expense of the ‘normal.’ The social cost of such a situation, they feared, would be devastating.”
The last difference between Black’s case and N’Jai’s case is that N’Jai discovered proof of her sterilization when she tried to have children later in life. After trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant in her late 20’s or early 30’s, N’Jai sought medical attention from doctors only to be told that her Fallopian tubes had been totally burned off and there was no reversing the damage — so extensive that there was no way she would ever be able to bear children again.
For N’Jai, it all began at McKeesport Hospital back on November 14, 1972. This is the date she gave birth to her third child at the age of 17. N’Jai shared:
“I remember after I had the baby. You know how you’re in the labor room. I’d asked about birth control, so I wouldn’t have another baby right away. I didn’t know about anything burning tubes. I guess because you’re so young. I recall them standing around. I remember questions like ‘Do you want to have anymore children?’. I said ‘Yes but not right away.’ There were five white people around my bed. I was there alone. My parents were not there….I remember having my baby, waking up, people standing around me, being put to sleep, waking up, and going home.”
N’Jai proceeded to share how she was left with a long “ugly” scar that ran from her naval to the top of her pelvic area. When I asked her what she thought when she first saw the scar, she said that she figured it was the result of a reversible birth control procedure like having one’s tubes tied. Her understanding was that once Fallopian tubes are tied they can be untied later. In conversation with N’Jai, however, it did not appear that it was ever made explicitly clear by doctors to her what procedure they would perform in her request for some type of birth control. In her words, she said, “I had no clue the extent of what they (McKeesport Hospital doctors) did.” She believes that her marriage ended in divorce because it became clear there was no hope that she and her husband would ever have children.
After consulting with two gynecologists in the 1980’s, N’Jai found out that the doctors at McKeesport Hospital had no business performing a salpingectomy on a 17-year-old girl. Candidates for the procedure were to be at least 21 years of age and engage in a consultation in order to have a full understanding of the consequences of the procedure. After managing to get her hands on her medical records, N’Jai found that McKeesport Hospital medical staff recorded her age as 19 and described her as an “intelligent black female.” N’Jai expounds, “…as if I understood what I was getting into and agreed. Maybe they thought that if they put that in the records that would get them out of legal trouble for what they were doing to young black females….I don’t know why they would do that when I’d had kids in that hospital, and they knew my age.”
Also during the 1980’s, N’Jai says she contacted a physician malpractice board but that no one from the board ever got back in touch with her. However, she did call the doctor — name not revealed — listed in her medical records as the one responsible for her salpingectomy. At the time, the doctor still worked at McKeesport Hospital. N’Jai said that when the doctor answered the phone she said, “I’m one of those girls whose life you destroyed.” When I asked N’Jai if she mentioned anything of the sterilization, she replied, “I might have said ‘that you sterilized’ or something to that nature. She (the doctor) did not say a word and hung up. I intended to sue her. I don’t know. It did not come up again until I read your article.”
N’Jai is convinced that she was sterilized because she was a 17-year-old black female with three children and on welfare — her reasoning in agreement with the spirit of the Eugenics movement. As my conversation with N’Jai came to a close, she really wanted to emphasize the scar she believes many women affected by the Eugenics movement are left with. She told me, “I really can relate to that person in that article (you wrote). Especially when she started describing that scar….The thing we all have in common. The main thing I wanted to share with you was the scar we have to look at everyday even when we’re trying to forget. When you shower. When you go to the restroom.”
Being sterilized against their will is something Black and N’Jai will have to live with for the rest of their lives. When I mentioned to N’Jai that it must be difficult to handle, she replied saying that life goes on. She said that she now has three degrees and has been teaching for about 26 years. She still made a point of saying that although she did not know her sterilization could be a result of the Eugenics movement until she read my article, she is “willing and game” to sue “or join a class action against McKeesport Hospital.”