Ways of Seeing by Joanna Colwell: Vermont’s painful history lesson

I’m pretty sure I have been writing this column for about ten years, and over those years I have touched on many subjects. These days I mostly write about racial justice, and the intersection between general ethical behavior and standing up for what is good and right and true, in the face of so much evil in the world.
I write about yoga, and how this ancient philosophy, honed by countless teachers over the generations, offers us tools to understand our bodies and minds, our relationships, and our world. I write about politics, and how our spiritual understanding, whether we consider ourselves religious or not, influences our actions in the public sphere. I have written about climate change, local agriculture, immunization, birth, death, frozen pipes, the problematic Church Street mural, Colin Kaepernick and more, but I don’t think I’ve ever written about abortion.
I am one of the approximately 70 percent of Americans who believe it is a woman’s right to decide whether and when to bear children. Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights, as Hillary Clinton once famously said. These inalienable human rights include the right to mental and physical safety, the right to live free from the fear of being assaulted or abused, in or outside of our homes. If we do choose to bear children we have the right to excellent nutrition and prenatal care, and the right to give birth with supportive, well trained doctors, nurses, and midwives. We have the right to enjoy and express our sexuality, separate from whether or not we choose to have babies.
At a recent legislative breakfast in Vergennes, five or six citizens stood at the microphone and implored our State Representatives to refrain from co-sponsoring H.57, a bill that proposes to recognize as a fundamental right the freedom of reproductive choice, and to prohibit public entities from interfering with or restricting the right of an individual to terminate the individual’s pregnancy. The bill also recognizes that “every individual has the fundamental right to choose or refuse contraception or sterilization.” This is vitally important, given Vermont’s terrible history of eugenics, which led to the forced sterilization of women deemed “delinquent, unfit, or degenerate” in the 1920s and 30s.
While most people associate eugenics with Hitler and the Nazis, it was actually a group of American researchers who created the field as an area of medical and “scientific” study. One of the leaders of the field was a zoology professor at UVM, Dr. Henry Perkins. He created the Eugenics Survey of Vermont, which was an effort to search the state for anyone deemed unfit to procreate, especially Abenaki people, so called “gypsy families” (that word is now recognized as a racial slur, the respectful term is Romani People), people with “the dark-skin of African-American,” and other so-called “defectives.” Did you know that the beautiful Lilac Inn in Brandon was once the summer home of a wealthy businessman whose daughter, Shirley Farr, donated five or six thousand dollars every year from 1925 to 1936 to the Vermont Eugenics Survey?
Dr. Perkins managed to convince enough legislators to pass the 1931 eugenic sterilization law, “A Law for Human Betterment by Voluntary Sterilization.” Vermont was ultimately one of 27 states that had a forced sterilization program. My home state of California also had a eugenic sterilization program, which was not abolished until 1979. I have vivid memories of my mom telling me about Spanish speakers (new research shows that Latina women were particularly targeted) who while in the hospital to give birth were handed paperwork in English, tricking them into consenting to sterilization.
Our focus on reproductive rights must include the right to bear children, and it must include the right to be supported while we nourish the next generation. White women must speak up loudly for the rights of our sisters of color, to not only have access to birth control and abortion, but to have excellent pre- and post-natal care. Black women die at a rate more than triple that of white women; even world tennis icon Serena Williams almost died after childbirth, when blood clots began forming in her lungs.
The fact that we almost lost one of the best athletes on the planet highlights the need for better care for women of color, who have historically been brutally experimented on, mistreated and disregarded, and who are still waiting for the apology and reparations they deserve.
To my fellow Vermonters who are disturbed that our legislators want to protect our right to choose: if you hate the idea that it is legal to terminate a pregnancy, you should know that in places where abortion is safe, legal, and available, fewer abortions happen. If you love babies and children as you claim to, you should work for programs that support families, like raising the minimum wage, increasing access to healthy food, and parental leave for moms and dads to take care of their precious newborns. When you speak up for the born, as well as the unborn, I will believe you when you say you are Pro Life.
Joanna Colwell is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher who founded and directs Otter Creek Yoga, in Middlebury’s Marble Works, and lives with her family in East Middlebury. When not practicing or teaching yoga, Joanna enjoys taking walks, cooking, serving on the board of WomenSafe, and working with the Middlebury chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. Feedback welcome at: [email protected]

Share this story:

More News
US Probation Office Uncategorized

US Probation Office Request for Proposals

US Probation Office 2×1.5 062024 RFP

Middlebury American Legion Uncategorized

Middlebury American Legion Annual Meeting

Middlebury American Legion 062024 1×1.5 Annual Meeting

Sports Uncategorized

MAV girls’ lax nets two triumphs

The Mount Abraham-Vergennes cooperative girls’ lacrosse team moved over .500 with a pair o … (read more)

Share this story: