The Relf Sisters

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The Relf Sisters, Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf (who were 12 and 14 years old in 1973, respectively), are two African-American sisters who were involuntarily sterilized by tubal ligation by a federally funded family planning clinic in Montgomery, Alabama in 1973.

Relf family background[edit]

Mary Alice and Minnie Lee are the youngest of six children born to Lonnie and Minnie Relf.[1] The Relfs struggled to live with their extremely poor lifestyle. Lonnie did not have a job because he became handicapped from a previous car accident.[2] Both Mr. and Mrs. Relf were illiterate.[1] The Montgomery, Alabama Community Action Program (CAP) was an organization that was founded to aid impoverished families in the Montgomery region. The program found the Relf family and addressed them out of their shack to a housing complex. The CAP also directed the family to use government assistance, which included the family planning clinic.[3] At their home on Smiley Court, the Relfs paid $25 a month for rent while receiving a $156 welfare check and food stamps.[1] It is unknown as to where the family is at today.


Women of color were one of the biggest targets of coerced sterilization in the United States. In North Carolina, 65% of its sterilization operations were performed on African American women, although only 25% of its females were black.[4] Mary Alice and Minnie were not the only African American minors that were forcibly sterilized during the 1970s. The same family planning clinic the Relfs were serviced by sterilized a total of 11 female minors, 10 of whom were black.[2] This investigation led to a further discovery of even more involuntary procedures of minors all across the United States. From a total of 3,260 government funded birth control clinics, another 80 minors were found to be victims of coerced sterilization.[2] Majority of these girls came from poor families. Medical providers used this as an advantage. Since these families relied heavily on government assistance, medical personnel essentially did whatever they pleased with their patients. The Relf case helped expose thousands of sterilization procedures that did not involve consent, the majority of which involved African American women. One case involved Deborah Blackmon, an African American woman from North Carolina who was involuntarily sterilized at only 14 years old via a total abdominal hysterectomy in January 1972 due to the court judging her to be "severely mentally retarded".[5][6] Due to her undergoing the procedure under county authority as opposed to state, Blackmon has yet to receive any justice or compensation for the procedure.[7]

Involuntary Sterilization of Mentally Disabled[edit]

The practice of eugenics played a crucial role as for the reason why coerced sterilization was used. Eugenics is defined as preserving individuals who are considered 'genetically superior' from those who are inferior to them. Those who were deemed 'inferior' included people who were mentally disabled.[4] A policy titled Law 116 stated that those who were 'feeble-minded' and 'diseased' could be permanently sterilized. Lawmakers believed that these individuals were inept in making decisions about their reproductive abilities. They also did not want the mentally ill to pass on their genetics to their offspring. The United States used this statement to justify their reason for the sterilizations previously performed and for future operations.[8]

Relf Sterilization[edit]

Mary and Minnie's older sister Katie Relf (who was 17 years old in 1973) was not forcibly sterilized at the time her sisters underwent the procedure, but she was operated on before them. An intrauterine device (IUD) had been inserted inside Katie after she became pregnant and suffered a miscarriage. Lonnie and Minnie were unaware of the operation only until afterwards.[1] Before Mary Alice and Minnie Lee were operated on, they were given Depo-Provera, a birth control shot that was later prohibited by the FDA after reports of peculiar side effects.[3] When the nurses from the family planning clinic visited the Relf residence, Lonnie was not home. They spoke with Mrs. Relf and told her that Mary Alice's body was developing. She would begin becoming attractive to boys, even though she was found to be mentally retarded and had a deformed right arm.[1] Minnie Lee was only two years younger than her sister, so her body was going to start maturing soon. The nurses then claimed to Minnie that her two daughters were just going to receive some "shots."[3] Since Mrs. Relf could neither read nor write, she signed a consent form with a "X."[1] She believed that Mary Alice and Minnie Lee were going to be given birth control shots, just like they've received before.[2] Lonnie returned home and went to visit his daughters at the clinic. When he arrived, the nurses advised him that visiting hours were over and he was not able to see Mary or Minnie.[2] The girls were eventually sent home after the operation was complete. Mr. Relf noticed scar tissue formed on both of his youngest daughters' bodies. He asked his social worker to find out what had actually happened at the clinic. Once Lonnie and Minnie Relf came to the realization that their daughters were sterilized without their consent, they filed for a lawsuit with the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center.[1] Katie Relf would also represent with her sisters in the court case Relf v. Weinberger. The case resulted in prohibiting the use of federal funds for involuntary sterilizations.[9] The defendants in the case, Casper Weinberger and Arnett were found to have "used federal funds and the powers devolved upon them to bring about the use of birth control measures, including sterilization, on the plaintiffs (in the case of O.E.O.) and the class they represent (in the case of O.E.O. and H.E.W.) The defendants Casper Weinberger and Arnett as well as their predecessors in office were found to have acted to deny plaintiffs and their class status the right to procreate, which is a constitutionally protected right, by "failing to establish any guidelines for birth control programs conducted with federal funds, under federal auspices or by failing to distribute such guidelines once formulated." [10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Alexander, Daryl (September 1973). "A Montgomery Tragedy: The Relf Family Refused to be the Nameless Victims of Involuntary Sterilization". Essence: 42–43, 82, 96.
  2. ^ a b c d e Jr, B. Drummond Ayres (1973-07-08). "The Nation". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2018-03-21.
  3. ^ a b c "Gender and Legal History Paper Summary — Georgetown Law". Retrieved 2018-03-21.
  4. ^ a b "Unwanted Sterilization and Eugenics Programs in the United States". Independent Lens. Retrieved 2018-03-21.
  5. ^ "Payments Start For N.C. Eugenics Victims, But Many Won't Qualify". Retrieved 2018-04-10.
  6. ^ "For eugenic sterilization victims, belated justice". MSNBC. Retrieved 2018-04-10.
  7. ^ "North Carolina Eugenics Victims Still Seeking Justice due to Compensation Technicality | Charlotte Lozier Institute". Retrieved 2018-04-10.
  8. ^ "History of Forced Sterilization and Current U.S. Abuses - Our Bodies Ourselves". Our Bodies Ourselves. Retrieved 2018-03-21.
  9. ^ "Relf v. Weinberger". Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved 2018-03-21.
  10. ^
  11. ^ "Buck, Carrie (1906–1983)". Retrieved 2018-04-10.
  12. ^ "Eugenics Archive Theme". Retrieved 2018-04-10.