The Uighur birthrate has plummeted in Xinjiang Credit: Kevin Frayer / Getty

July 3, 2020   5 mins

In 2015, the British Court of Protection ruled that a 36-year-old woman with a learning disability could be sterilised against her will. It’s a judgement worth reading in full for several reasons, not least the care with which Mr. Justice Cobb weighs the details of the case. The woman, referred to as DD, had already had six children (all of whom had been taken into care), and any further pregnancy would probably kill her — something that DD’s limited capacity seemed to prevent her from understanding.

It was because of the threat to life, and not for any other reason, that the Judge solemnly authorised the procedure. “This case is not about eugenics,” he emphasised. And even so, even though the details of the case make it very clear that leaving DD to conceive again would do nothing good for her, and that no other course but sterilisation could work, it feels like a terrible conclusion to have reached. A letter from DD is quoted, and her words hang heavily over the proceedings. “My body is mine,” she says, “by human rights.”

My body is mine, by human rights. It seems like the most basic principle, and one which could only be breached in circumstances as extreme as those of DD. But of course, for much of history and in many places, it’s been breached with casual utilitarianism: the reason Mr Justice Cobb had to say his judgement wasn’t about eugenics is that there have been thousands of women like DD whose fertility was stolen from them only on the grounds of improving the gene pool. For as long as contraception has existed, people have been using it to stop the wrong people from breeding.

Marie Stopes introduced the world to birth control in her book Married Love, then later she tried to stop her son from marrying a woman with glasses on the grounds that weak eyesight was “dysgenic” and should be excluded from the racial stock. Her passionate interest in eugenics put her into unsavoury connections: she gave Hitler a book of her poems.

But then, it also put her in step with a respectable and broad-based international movement of the rationalist and progressive: John Maynard Keynes, Beatrice and Sydney Webb, and George Bernard Shaw were among her fellow-travellers. (Given that Ronald Fisher has just had his memorial window removed from Cambridge for his views on eugenics, one wonders how long the Stopes clinics will bear her name.)

Under the influence of the ideas that Stopes espoused, thousands of women judged unworthy of breeding have been cajoled or coerced or downright deceived into sterilisation. They might have been judged “feeble-minded” – under a definition of feeble-mindedness that was expansive enough to cover heavy drinking and “promiscuity” (if you were unmarried and you got pregnant once, that could qualify you as promiscuous). It took the undeniable horror of Nazi Germany to make eugenics synonymous with atrocity; and even then, people have kept putting the idea into practice, while avoiding the word if they can.

Between 2006 and 2010, 150 women in the California prison system were sterilised — some with full consent, but others reported being pressured when they were under sedation for a different operation. One of the doctors involved defended the cost to the state: “Over a 10-year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children — as they procreated more.”

Because black, Hispanic and Native American woman in the US have higher rates of incarceration than white women, targeting prisoners for sterilisation means (even if inadvertently) targeting racialised women for sterilisation. That, too, is a grim chapter of the eugenic inheritance, in the US and elsewhere.

In Peru, at the end of the last century, a programme under the misnomer Voluntary Surgical Contraception overwhelmingly captured poor and indigenous women, many of whom could not read the Spanish in which the consent forms were written as they signed away their fertility. And then there’s what’s happening now in the Chinese province of Xinjiang.

The persecution of Xinjiang’s Uighurs has only recently made Western headlines, but it is hardly new, and reproductive coercion has long been part of it. What has changed over recent years is how explicitly the goal of exterminating the Uighurs is discussed, and how systematically it is pursued. While President Xi Jinping is a proponent of natalism (he oversaw the end of China’s one-child policy in 2015, for demographic rather than bodily autonomy reasons), not all population growth is wanted population growth.

The babies required are those of the dominant Han group. Chinese of other ethnicities must either assimilate, or be eliminated. State-mandated abortion, IUD insertion and sterilisation of Uighurs has caused the birth rate in Xinjiang (where Uighurs make up 45% of the population) to fall by 24% in the last year; for comparison, the nationwide decline in birth rate is only 4.2%. The attack on reproduction is the most extreme aspect of a programme designed to destroy the Uighur as a people, through prohibition of their language and culture, and “re-education” in brutal camps.

The Uighurs are a problem to the Chinese state because of the way the Chinese ideal of statehood is constituted. David Tobin, Hallsworth Research Fellow in the Political Economy of China at the University of Manchester, explains that since 2012, “policy became about engineering identity”. China’s leadership holds the position that “the disappearance of cultures and language is natural and should be celebrated” — it’s simply a matter of evolution.

While, theoretically, the country is not a Han ethnostate (under Mao, “Han chauvinism” was actually framed as a problem to be abolished), the Han are given a privileged role in the national myth, presented as the stable, civilising entity into which other, less developed groups must be absorbed. It’s for this reason that intermarriage between Han and Uighurs is encouraged, rather than abhorred, in the way that Western racism’s traditional horror of miscegenation might lead you to imagine. The stubborn otherness of the Uighurs is an affront to national unity that must be corrected, by any means necessary.

If you study anthropology in Xinjiang, at the top of your reading list you’ll find an American name: 19th-century anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. Morgan researched and recorded the lives of Native Americans, especially the Iroquois. He was also an avid assimilatist, establishing a narrative of civilisation’s progress which has influenced the treatment of the Uighurs: the First Nations would have to give up their nations, and submit to being “civilized, Christianized, and humanized”.

Lewis helped to formulate early plans for the Indian Reservation system. These turned out to be sites not only of deprivation, but of control: Native American rituals were proscribed, and effectively remained so until the 1990s. And the logic of assimilation developed after Lewis’s death, perhaps inevitably, to include reproductive coercion. The Family Planning Services and Population Research Act, passed in 1970, subsidised sterilisations: as many as 25% of Native American women of childbearing age underwent the procedure over the next six years. Rote sterilisations were nicknamed “Mississippi appendectomies”.

The surgical banality of this violence shouldn’t obscure the fact that it is violence. For the individual, it’s a vicious sundering of her from her future, as well as a physical attack on her insides. That’s another reason to read the DD judgement: it is unflinching in its account of what must be done when an unwilling woman is sterilised. DD would be surprised at her home. She would be restrained. She would be anaesthetised, and she would wake up infertile and in pain.

Compulsory sterilisation is one of the gravest things that can be imposed on a person. When imposed on her because of her ethnicity, it is a genocide — the female body as ground zero in the pursuit of better breeding. It is being done, methodically and barely concealed, now, to the Uighurs.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.