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Landmark Case

Relf v. Weinberger

Case Number

Civ. A. Nos. 73-1557 (Consolidated with 74-243)

When Mary Alice Relf was 12 and Minnie Lee Relf was 14, the sisters became victims of the abusive practice of sterilizing poor Black women in the South. Their mother, who had very little education and was illiterate, signed an “X” on a piece of paper, expecting her daughters would be given birth control shots. Instead, the young women were surgically sterilized and robbed of their right to ever bear children of their own.

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Relf sisters and exposed the widespread sterilization abuse funded by the federal government and practiced for decades. The district court found an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 poor people were sterilized annually under federally funded programs. Countless others were forced to agree to be sterilized when doctors threatened to terminate their welfare benefits unless they consented to the procedures.

The judge prohibited the use of federal dollars for involuntary sterilizations and the practice of threatening women on welfare with the loss of their benefits if they refused to comply. As the litigation made its way through the courts, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services) withdrew the challenged regulations under which the government funded the forced sterilizations. The lawsuit’s exposure led to the requirement that doctors obtain “informed consent” before performing sterilization procedures.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia declared that certain department regulations covering sterilizations were “arbitrary and unreasonable” and enjoined the department from providing federal funds to be used for the sterilization of certain incompetent persons. The district court also ordered the department to amend its regulations. When the department withdrew the challenged regulations, it represented on appeal its intention to issue new regulations. The appellate court held that the controversy was moot due to the department’s actions and remanded the case to the district court for dismissal.