Rebecca Cokley on how to stop the violence disabled people experience

March 21, 20245 Minutes
By Shannon Melero

“It is better for all the world if…society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”

That sentence, written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1927, was the defining sentiment behind the seminal Supreme Court decision Buck v. Bell—a case that allowed states to continue the practice of forcibly sterilizing those it deemed unfit to reproduce, namely people of color, the physically disabled, and those considered to have mental “deficiencies.”  In the specific situation behind Buck v. Bell, the plaintiff was Carrie Buck, a young white woman in Virginia who was forcibly sterilized for her “feeble-mindedness” under that state’s Eugenical Sterilization Act.  

It would be easy to dismiss that ruling and Holmes’ words as a relic from another time if the practice of forced sterilization hadn’t lingered so long after that case. Over the course of the twentieth century, roughly 70,000 Americans (mostly women of color) were forcibly sterilized—a practice activist Fannie Lou Hamer famously labeled the “Mississippi appendectomy.” And while the work of activists like Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias, founder of the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse, brought some change in the 1970s, forced sterilization is still a painful reality: As of 2022, there are 31 states where the practice can be authorized by a judge and/or performed on a disabled person without their consent.

Rebecca Cokley—the preeminent activist and program officer of disability rights at the Ford Foundation—encountered this situation firsthand while giving birth to her daughter in 2013, and she shared the story onstage at Free Future 2023. As she was undergoing a C-section, Cokley recalled, her anesthesiologist said to her OBGYN, “While you’re down there, why don’t you go ahead and tie her tubes? Because kids like her don’t need to have kids.” Cokley’s OBGYN refused and, as Cokley put it, almost “jumped over the drape to beat him to a pulp.” 

But for many disabled people in America, that kind of support is non-existent. Instead, they’re left at the mercy of a medical system that, by design, excludes them. A 2023 study published in The Lancet found that “32% of health care professionals hold explicit preferences for non-disabled people over disabled people.” And as Cokley explains, the practice of forced sterilization is part of a larger pattern of disabled people—”especially women and girls”—being denied bodily autonomy:  “You’re never told your body is yours and you have the right to say no,” she points out. “You’re never given ownership over your body.”

Other advances have helped safeguard the rights of disabled people in certain areas—from the educational reforms of Thomas H. Gallaudet in 1817 to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Cokley and others want to ensure that reproductive justice, and the rights of all people with disabilities to have children how and when they want, is on the table, too. “We have an unequivocal right to bodily autonomy, and to make these choices,” she says.

Cokley also notes, “Every policy recommendation moving forward on reproductive health, rights, justice, must include a disability lens. So when hearing about people having to travel across multiple states to access [abortion] care, I want the public to think. ‘So what would that mean if you’re disabled and say, don’t have access to accessible transportation, or need other assistance?’”

You can watch Cokley onstage at Free Future 2023, in conversation with Catalina Devandas, the UN’s first Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and human rights advocate Maryangel Garcia-Ramos, here. (Their session begins at 2:25:25.)