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Eugenics Marker by North Carolina Highway

It’s been nearly four months since the United States Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion, triggering restrictions in numerous states and a national debate on reproductive rights. The regulation of women’s bodies has a long history in the U.S., not only regarding abortion, wherein women exercise the autonomy to make decisions, but also the forced sterilization of women — in which the state made decisions on their behalf.

More than 60,000 people were sterilized in the U.S. in the 20th century on the basis of eugenics — the majority of them women. Eugenics is a belief that future generations of humans could be improved through the careful selection of who reproduces. It was greatly influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and used scientific language to justify discrimination against those deemed “unfit” to have children. 

The U.S. was a leader in eugenics, with Indiana passing the world’s first sterilization law in 1907. Over 30 states followed suit, with sterilizations peaking in the 1930s and 1940s. While sterilization began by targeting “mentally defective,” “feeble-minded” or disabled individuals, it...