History in Review
Choice & Coercion
Birth Control, Sterilization, and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare
(Gender and American Culture)
By Johanna Schoen
The University of North Carolina Press (2005)
Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - March 25, 2011
In Choice & Coercion: Birth Control, Sterilization, and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare, Johanna Schoen uses the North Carolina Eugenics program as a case study from which to examine eugenics programs around the globe, as well as the history of women's reproductive health. Authoritative and haunting, this account also examines how access to reproduction technologies has been used as a means, primarily by male professionals, such as politicians, physicians, social scientist, and public health workers, to control women's reproduction rather than to give women the ability to control their own reproduction. Within the pages of this important history, Schoen also looks at how current reproduction policies and the lack of access to reproduction technologies and medical care are continuing the legacy of these past eugenics programs.
Eugenics is the practice of selective breeding in order to improve a 'bloodline' much as selective breeding is used in the breeding of pure bred dogs - in an attempt to purge the given 'bloodline' of unwanted characteristics and to enhance those traits that are considered desirable. In the realm of eugenics, however, we are not talking about dogs, but rather humans. Eugenics had a large following in the United States prior to World War II. It was common for individuals, most of whom were mentally or physically disabled, lived in poverty, had criminal records, or who belonged to minority groups, to be sterilized. These sterilizations were carried out through a variety of means, including coercion, deception, and often by court order. It was thought that traits such as poverty, criminality, promiscuity, alcoholism, and laziness were genetics traits that were passed on from parents to children. Stop such parents from reproducing, and society as a whole would be improved. After World War II, eugenics became, in modern terminology, politically incorrect, due primarily to the widespread acknowledgment of Nazi atrocities and the Nazi's corruption of the theory of eugenics to promote their own racist goals. Much later, concerns about the role that racial bias and discrimination was playing in American eugenics programs were one of the factors that led to its official demise. While the general public soon lost interest in eugenics, many politicians and public health advocates continued to endorse practices that were eugenic in nature or couched in eugenic rhetoric.
In 2003, North Carolina publically admitted the inhumanity of the eugenics program that was carried out in the state, a program that officially lasted from 1929-1975. The 'state' apologized for their actions, and offered compensation to those who were sterilized as part of the state's eugenics program. Johanna Schoen was instrumental in exposing the full scope of the North Carolina Eugenics program to the world - a world which for far to long has ignored the force sterilization, mostly of women, that was carried out throughout the United States, and the world, in the name of eugenics.
Rigorously researched, Choice & Coercion is an important addition to the history of reproductive policies in the United States. While men occasionally fell afoul of the various eugenics programs, like most issues related to reproduction, women were often the focus of such efforts and far more women were forcibly sterilized than were men. As such, Schoen not only looks at the issues related directly to the eugenics programs, but also at a variety of reproduction issues in general, including women's access, or denial of, birth control technologies and abortions before Roe v. Wade. She provides a keen overview of the various methods that women used to gain access to birth control, and how, public health and welfare programs were used to control access to contraceptives in North Carolina. She also looks at how North Carolina's program compared to other birth control programs that were carried out throughout the United States. Notably, Schoen also examines the lessons learned by the North Carolina Eugenics program and the implications that it has in the current debates about abortion, access to birth control, and reproductive politics in general.
Choice & Coercion is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the history of eugenics or women's reproductive issues. Schoen's writing is fluid and engaging, making a complex and multi-faceted history accessible to general readers as well as to scholars. For those desirous of pursuing this subject in greater detail, you'll find that Schoen's extensive endnotes will provide you ample fodder for further study.
Better For All the World, by Harry Bruinius.
The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America's Quest for Racial Purity. A general history of eugenics in the United States.
Eugenics and the Welfare State: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, edited by Gunnar Broberg and Nils Roll-Hansen.
An academic overview of the history, politics, and science of eugenics programs throughout Scandinavia.
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