Forced Sterilizations in SC

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A local politician, Charleston SC City Councilor Larry Shirley, recently made this public pronouncement, which he later characterized as “starting a dialogue about reducing crime”:

“We pick up stray animals and spay them. These mothers need to be spayed if they can’t take care of theirs. Once they have a child and it’s running the street, to let them continue to have children is totally unacceptable.”

I didn’t blog about this primarily because it is so very awful in so many ways, I guess I just tried to repress it. Today Pam Spaulding posted “Back to the Eugenics Drawing Board in SC” at Pandagon, and I think she was right to draw attention to Shirley’s words, and I was wrong to try to ignore them. For whatever it is worth, here is a somewhat edited version of a comment I left at Pandagon in response:

South Carolina’s history with forced sterilization is ugly. In 1977 local lawyers working with the ACLU on involuntary sterilization issues were accused of improperly soliciting clients when they did advertising and outreach to find women that this had happened to, and almost had their licenses to practice law revoked. Do I make this stuff up? No, I do not. Here is the text of the letter that almost got Edna Smith Primus disbarred:

Dear Mrs. Williams:

You will probably remember me from talking with you at Mr. Allen’s office in July about the sterilization performed on you. The American Civil Liberties Union would like to file a lawsuit on your behalf for money against the doctor who performed the operation. We will be coming to Aiken in the near future and would like to explain what is involved so you can understand what is going on.

Now I have a question to ask of you. Would you object to talking to a women’s magazine about the situation in Aiken? The magazine is doing a feature story on the whole sterilization problem and wants to talk to you and others in South Carolina. If you don’t mind doing this, call me collect at 254-8151 on Friday before 6:00, if you receive this letter in time. Or call me on Tuesday morning (after Labor Day) collect.

I want to assure you that this interview is being done to show what is happening to women against their wishes, and is not being done to harm you in any way. But I want you to decide, so call me collect and let me know of your decision. This practice must stop.

About the lawsuit, if you are interested, let me know, and Ill let you know when we will come down to talk to you about it. We will be coming to talk to Mrs. Waters at the same time; she has already asked the American Civil Liberties Union to file a suit on her behalf.


s/ Edna Smith

Edna Smith


To make a long and very alarming story relatively short: She was”disciplined”for sending this letter by the SC Bar. She appealed the censure up to the SC Supreme Court, which ruled against her (In the Matter of Edna Smith, 268 S.C. 259, 233 S.E.2d 301 (1977)), and then took the issue to the US Supreme Court, which ruled in her favor. You can read the SCOTUS opinion here.

Smith wasn’t the only one – one of my law prof colleagues was threatened with disbarment due to his work with the ACLU as well. He had bar memberships in other states to fall back on, not to mention tenure, and so do I, but for local attorneys whose very livelihood was at stake, this was a scary case indeed.

–Ann Bartow

This entry was posted in Feminism and Law, Feminist Legal History, Legal Profession, Reproductive Rights. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Forced Sterilizations in SC

  1. Q. Pheevr says:

    Hmm… The MSNBC headline says, “Councilman sorry for idea of sterilizing parents,” but what he’s quoted as saying is, “These mothers need to be spayed if they can’t take care of their[ children].”

    Not that it would have been appropriate for him to suggest forcible sterilization of fathers, too—but why should MSNBC gloss over the fact that he was specifically contemplating violating the human rights of women?

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