Stealing Wombs: Population Control And Forced Sterilisations In Greenland and Beyond

In May, journalists Celine Klint and Anne Pilegaard Petersen revealed in a podcast that Danish medical authorities had placed contraceptive intrauterine devices (IUDs) in the uteri of 4,500 Greenlandic women and girls, often without their informed consent, in order to stop pregnancies and curb population growth in the sixties and seventies.

Trauma therapist Naja Lyberth speaking to Justiceinfo reported that she was only fourteen when school doctors had ordered her and thousands of Inuit girls to get IUDs. Neither Naja nor her parents gave anyone permission for the procedure. “They never presented it as a choice”.

Naja knows many Greenlandic women who endured severe complications due to IUDs, such as menstrual cramps, heavy bleeding, crippling stomach aches, and uterine infections. Worst of all, the risk of women becoming infertile rises exponentially when IUDs are inserted at a young age. Some of the Inuit girls were barely twelve years old when they received an IUD, and only discovered much later in life that they were incapable of bearing children as a consequence.

Historian Molly Geidel has stated that various studies published throughout the early 1960s demonstrated that IUDs caused considerable side-effects. Nonetheless, so-called population “experts” and think-tanks such as the Ford Foundation continued to promote the claimed advantages of mass IUD implantations. Influential gynaecologists such as Alan Guttmacher often downplayed the need for follow-up examinations, suppressed inconvenient findings, and ignored alternative contraceptive methods. The conclusion was simple, “…once the damn thing is in, the patient cannot change her mind.”

Convinced that Greenlandic women were constitutionally incapable of taking birth control pills, Danish doctors secretly inserted IUDs without informing their patients. A source told Danish journalists that doctors joked about Inuit women wanting treatment for swollen fingers, only for them to leave the clinic with an IUD.

These revelations are disturbing but not surprising. A rigid paternalism, combined with a fascination for “racial hygiene” and eugenics were defining features of the Danish intelligentsia and medical profession in the 20th century. Denmark became the first country in Europe to pass sterilisation laws in 1929, which inspired Adolf Hitler and according to Anne Sørensen, paved the way for the sterilisation of around 13,000 “abnormal” Danes—the vast majority of whom were mentally disabled, alcoholic, or promiscuous women.

A lingering colonial mindset conditioned Danish authorities, among other elites of European descent throughout the Western Hemisphere, to view indigenous peoples as “subnormal” subjects that should not be permitted to outnumber white populations.

In the United States, Jane Lawrence estimates that between 1970 and 1976, 25-50% of Native American women were sterilised, often without their knowledge. Many doctors at the Indian Health Service (IHS) strongly felt that poor “welfare scroungers”, especially among Native American, African American, and Puerto Rican minorities, did not possess the responsible behaviour or intellectual acumen required to use safer forms of birth control.

Baseless and racist assumptions led to tragic consequences. Two fifteen-year-old Native American girls went to hospital one day to have tonsillectomies, only to leave with tubal ligations. A physician dismissed an Indian woman’s persistent migraines as a mere “female problem”, suggesting that she gets a hysterectomy (removal of the womb). It turned out that she had a brain tumour.

Sally Torpy found that President Jimmy Carter reimbursed hospitals for 90% of sterilisation costs while approving the Hyde Amendment, which slashed 98% of all federal funding for abortion. Legal scholar Edward Spriggs Jr. concluded that the widespread sterilisation of Native American women constituted “perhaps the best contemporary examples of incipient genocide by private persons, often with public sanction, in the United States”.

Medical and disability historian Jaipreet Virdi has added that involuntary sterilisations were ongoing in Canada as well. Sixty First Nation women filed a class action lawsuit in 2018, alleging they had undergone forced sterilisations over a period of thirty years in Saskatchewan. Some of these crimes happened as recently as 2017.

Victims such as Brenda Pelletier claim that medical personnel refused to discharge her and her family after giving birth until they agreed to sign sterilisation consent forms. “Eugenically minded” doctors, according to Karen Stote, still believe they are duty-bound to protect Canadian society from Aboriginal women spreading venereal diseases, alcoholism, and immorality through their offspring.

In Peru, the Reproductive Health and Family Planning Program (PSRPF) under President Alberto Fujimori pursued a borderline genocidal policy against indigenous women – around 300,000 were sterilised between 1995 and 2001. Marketed as a pro-feminist and anti-poverty initiative, the PSRPF according to Ñusta P. Carranza Ko, set out in reality to accomplish a very different objective: eliminate future generations of protestors so that multinational corporations can occupy and exploit indigenous lands rich in natural resources without resistance.

In Mexico, the Toronto Star reported that medical teams targeted indigenous Mixtec peoples for sterilisation in the state of Guerrero between 1997 and 1998. After a lengthy investigation, the Guerrero Human Rights Commission concluded that numerous Mixtec men underwent botched vasectomies which caused terrible side-effects. Jose Toribio for example, struggled to walk properly for years after going through the procedure due to throbbing pain in his left leg and groin.

The Mexican government clearly intended to reduce the number of “pure Indians” born in Guerrero, who represent approximately one-seventh of the three million inhabitants in the state. Members of the No.3 medical brigade, much like their counterparts in Greenland and Canada, inserted IUDs into the wombs of Mixtec women or performed tubal ligations following caesarean sections without informing patients. Brigadiers even threatened to withhold food aid or agricultural payments if the impoverished Mixtecs refused to be sterilised.

Similar incidents unfolded in Bolivia during the Cold War. American policymakers and intellectuals, eager to counter Soviet anti-colonialism in the Global South, promoted dubious “modernisation” theories, including intrusive population control measures that nearly wiped-out vulnerable minorities in Latin America.

The US Peace Corps tried to pressure Bolivian indigenous peoples into adopting Western lifestyles, such as having fewer children. Volunteers viewed Quechua women’s wombs as conveyor belts of extreme poverty and backwardness. Sterilisation programs, then, were considered viable solutions to whittle down undesirable communities and to finally drag Bolivia into the 20th century.

Filmmaker Jorge Sanjinés, having heard stories of the Peace Corps secretly sterilising indigenous women, fictionalised these accounts in a popular motion picture called Yawar Mallku (Blood of the Condor) in 1969. The film unleashed an outpouring of rage throughout the country. Authorities in La Paz promptly investigated the Peace Corps’ activities, which culminated in the organisation’s expulsion in 1971. The Peace Corps, as the film implied, really was involved in clandestine IUD-implant projects.

However, nations in the Western Hemisphere are not alone in using forced or coerced sterilisations to quietly end the reproduction of persons deemed economically burdensome, medically “defective”, or politically troublesome. Various regimes in Africa and Asia have a long and ignoble history in this regard as well.

Human rights expert Ebenezer Durojaye says healthcare providers in Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, and Kenya regularly sterilise HIV-positive women without their informed consent. Doctors and nurses even push women to sign consent forms without any explanation while they are already in labor.

In many African societies, motherhood is a sacred duty and infertility breeds severe social stigma. Spouses, family, and friends are likely to abandon or mistreat women who, of no fault of their own, can no longer give birth. A Kenyan woman lamented that her partner reacted violently when she couldn’t have children anymore: “When I told him about the sterilisation, he picked a machete and threatened to cut me into pieces”.

The unwanted injection of birth control medication in women belonging to the Orang Asli tribes in Malaysia is also worth noting. Colin Nicholas, founder and coordinator of the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC), warns that successive governments since the 1980s have pushed aggressive family planning campaigns to diminish Malaysia’s indigenous populations.

The Malay Mail reported in 2019 that multiple Orang Asli women have come forward to complain about health workers forcing them to take dangerous birth control injections: “I told them I did not want it, because I heard from others who took it that it can cause you to lose sensation in your body, stomach aches…But in the end I had to take it”. Some women even blamed the injections for causing birth defects and deformities in their new-born children.

The Malaysian Ministry of Health (MMH) insists contraceptives protect anaemic Orang Asli women from harmful pregnancies. Experts such as Dr. Milton Lum, however, beg to differ and compare the MMH’s blatant malpractice to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s mandatory sterilisation of around six million Indian men in 1976.

The IUD scandal in Greenland has the potential to destroy already tense relations between Copenhagen and Nuuk. Calls for full independence will grow louder and harder to ignore in the future. Greenlandic MP Doris J. Jensen told a news outlet that following the disclosures, Nuuk should seriously reconsider its relationship with the metropole. While MP Aki-Matilda Høegh-Dam went further to insinuate that the Danish state should face criminal charges for attempted genocide.

If Copenhagen wants to avoid an acrimonious split with Greenland, and keep its relatively positive reputation on the global stage intact, the myth of Denmark’s “innocent colonialism” must be put to rest once and for all. The IUD scandal proves beyond doubt that Danish imperialism was never a benign, enlightened, or insignificant project. It was a brutal endeavour that decimated countless lives in Ghana’s slave routes, plantations in the Virgin Islands, and Greenland’s icy harbours. Acknowledging this simple truth will go a long way towards repairing relations with the Inuit and might even set a precedent for other nations to follow.


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