The Oberlin Review
<< Front page News February 25, 2005

Indigenous speaker discusses forced sterilization

As part of the first installation of the annual Indigenous Women’s Series, Oberlin welcomed Ellen Baird, adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Dayton. In her lecture, which took place on Feb. 22 in the West Lecture Hall, Baird addressed issues concerning forced sterilization policies of the 1970s and their legacy for American Indian Women.

Baird began her talk commenting that doctors performed forced sterilizations on American Indian women due to issues that were “economic and social in nature.” Doctors wanted to limit the number of births to low income and minority families and simply felt that these women were not intelligent enough to use other forms of birth control.

Policies created in the 1970s admitted to using American Indian women as experiments, asserted Baird. A report in 1976 from Indian Health Services recorded 75,800 women involved in “medical research,” which Baird refers to as forced sterilization.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg people; this is just a start,” she said. “Can you imagine? How did they get away with this?” She goes on to describe that most of the procedures were done during births in which a cesarean-section was performed.

For Baird these issues are more than statistics. They are personal in nature because she is a survivor of forced sterilization.

She had had six miscarriages before carrying a pregnancy to term, and began hemorrhaging uncontrollably while in labor with her seventh child, losing a pint of blood. She was driven to the Aberdeen Indian Health Services, two hours away, to deliver her child and stop the bleeding.

“I woke up with an abdominal incision and was told by the nurses that I had a total hysterectomy and it was ‘for my own good,’” she said.

According to Baird, forced sterilization was allegedly abolished in 1976 so doctors needed informed consent to perform hysterectomies. However, her consent form was illegally “signed by the nurses and doctors.” In addition, even if the form is signed, “doctors are supposed to wait 72 hours [to initiate the procedure],” said Baird.

Many of these facts and stories are from a compilation of resources that Baird is utilizing to create a book based on these issues for publication.

During the lecture Baird admitted that “this book is a work in progress,” and that she does not “guarantee that these facts are accurate,” but feels they are important to discuss.

“[In the American Indian community] it is still taboo within the culture to discuss these issues, it is too painful, too recent to talk about,” said Baird. “So I’m not speaking for other people.”

Yet she recognizes that “all men and women should hear about this topic,” which is her plan in publishing her book. “My prayer is that it will never happen again.”

The talk also touched on environmental issues that are of concern on American Indian Reservations. Baird alleged that big energy companies, such as Westinghouse, dumped “radioactive waste in reservations where American Indians lived.”

As a result, American Indians have higher rates of birth defects, autism, learning disabilities and “wild, weird cancers that show up maybe one in a bazillion times,” she said.

Her own mother suffered from a urinary tract tumor and “died with radiation treatments a week later.” She had developed a septic infection from the treatments and Baird believes that, “her body could not handle the additional rays of radiation.”

She believes that many people on her reservation suffered from radiation exposure daily due to mineral drilling and radioactive waste contaminated water. Her mother was one of these victims.

“We need help, people to stand up and speak, too. Don’t be afraid to speak out. Are you willing to be an experiment, or are we willing to do something about it?” she asked.

The next Indigenous Women’s Series event is a lecture featuring Tiya Miles on Feb. 28, and concludes with a lecture featuring Davianna McGregor on April 19, both events held in West Lecture Hall.


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