The Long Shadow of Eugenics in America

What does the government owe the victims of forced sterilization?
A previously unpublished photograph of Minnie Lee Relf (left) and Mary Alice Relf in 1973, from The Times's photography archives.Gary Settle/The New York Times

In the summer of 1973, Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf were taken from their home in Montgomery, Ala., cut open and sterilized against their will and without the informed consent of their parents by a physician working in a federally funded clinic. The Relf case would change the course of history: A lawsuit filed on their behalf helped reveal that more than 100,000 mostly Black, Latina and Indigenous women were sterilized under U.S. government programs over decades.

It also officially ended this practice and forced doctors to obtain informed consent before performing sterilization procedures — though as it would turn out, forced sterilizations by state governments would continue into the 21st century.

Nearly all of America's original eugenics laws have been repealed. Three states have established programs to compensate victims of forced sterilization. But Alabama, where the Relf sisters were forcibly sterilized and which has been their home all their lives, is not one of those states, and the federal government has made no such moves.


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