Case: Relf v. Weinberger

73-cv-01557 | U.S. District Court for the District of District of Columbia

Filed Date: July 17, 1973

Closed Date: Sept. 13, 1977

Clearinghouse coding complete

Case Summary

On July 17, 1973, a group of private plaintiffs who were victims of sterilization abuse, represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, brought a class action lawsuit against the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services), and the Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, took issue with sterilization abuse against women that was fun…

On July 17, 1973, a group of private plaintiffs who were victims of sterilization abuse, represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, brought a class action lawsuit against the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services), and the Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, took issue with sterilization abuse against women that was funded by the federal government. The case was assigned to District Court Judge Gerhard Alden Gesell.  

The Community Action Programs (CAP) were created and funded through an act of Congress in 1964, where local agencies function following the directives and guidelines by the OEO. A subdivision of the plaintiff’s CAP was the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic. Sterilization guidelines for such OEO-funded clinics were prepared in 1972. The guidelines required sterilization operations to be employed only with the informed, written consent of a patient and that it was to be an intelligent, knowing decision. However, the plaintiffs, who were minors and under the impression that they would receive IUDs, were involuntarily sterilized. In their complaint, the plaintiffs alleged that the defendants denied plaintiffs and the class the right to privacy and to procreate in violation of their constitutional fundamental rights; that they were denied due process through the infliction of sterilization without proper safeguards in violation of the Fifth Amendment; that the administration of experimental drugs on poor people denied them the protection of equal laws and due process under the Fifth Amendment. Plaintiffs, thus, sought preliminary injunctive relief so that defendants would be barred from disbursing funds for sterilization operations and to cease sterilizations. The same relief was requested with regard to experimental drugs. 

The plaintiffs sought to represent two classes. With regard to birth control: “those (poor people) who, either because of minority or some other disability are unable knowingly and intelligently to understand the consequences of being administered birth control measures, and who have in the past or may be in the future subjected to birth control measures under the auspices of family planning services or other social welfare agencies funded or in any way supported or directed by the Office of Economic Opportunity (“OEO”) or the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (“HEW”).” And second, with regard to experimental drugs: “those poor persons who are beneficiaries of OEO and HEW programs and who are now or may be in the future subjected to experimental drugs by such programs.” 

The district court found an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 poor people were sterilized annually under federally funded programs. On March 15, 1974, following parties' motion for summary judgment, Judge Gesell held that family planning sections of the Social Security Act and Public Health Service Act did not authorize the provision of federal funds for sterilizing any person incompetent under state law to consent to such an operation or because of age or mental capacity. The District Court found the sterilization regulations were “arbitrary and unreasonable” since they did not require patients to be advised on their decision. The district court judge certified the class of “all poor persons subject to involuntary sterilization under programs or projects which receive funds administered by the Public Health Service or the Social and Rehabilitation Service of the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare.” The defendants were permanently enjoined from providing funds for the sterilization of any person who (1) has been judicially declared mentally incompetent, or (2) is in fact legally incompetent under the applicable state laws to give informed and binding consent because of their age or mental capacity. The district court also ordered the department to amend its regulations. 372 F.Supp. 1196.

The District Court’s order was appealed by both the defendants and plaintiffs on May 13, 1974. While the appeals were pending, HEW withdrew the challenged regulations and created revised sterilization guidelines. All parties signed a letter to the District Court on January 3, 1975 stating that the revisions were satisfactory. The District Court rejected the proposed modification as “inappropriate and not in the public interest.” The Court found that the modifications were designed to substitute a universal federal standard of voluntariness (which the Court has no authority to approve or disapprove since a federal standard had to considered through an official rulemaking process) that would permit federal funding of sterilization of persons 18 or over even when such persons are otherwise incompetent because of age or mental condition. As a result, interim regulations that conformed to the District Court’s March 15 order were put into effect until new regulations could be arrived at after rulemaking. Due to the withdrawal of the challenged regulations and the lack of objections to the interim regulations, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia found the controversy moot on September 13, 1977. The Appeals Court remanded the case to the District Court for dismissal. 565 F.2d 722. 

The case was dismissed and is closed. 

 

Summary Authors

Kavitha Babu (3/2/2024)

Documents in the Clearinghouse

Document

73-cv-01557

Class Action Complaint

July 31, 1973

July 31, 1973

Complaint

73-cv-01557

74-cv-00243

Opinion

March 15, 1974

March 15, 1974

Order/Opinion

372 F.Supp. 372

74-1797

74-1798

74-1802

76-1053

Opinion

U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

Sept. 13, 1977

Sept. 13, 1977

Order/Opinion

565 F.2d 565

Resources

Docket

Last updated March 31, 2024, 3:16 a.m.

Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.

Case Details

State / Territory: District of Columbia

Case Type(s):

Reproductive Issues

Disability Rights

Key Dates

Filing Date: July 17, 1973

Closing Date: Sept. 13, 1977

Case Ongoing: No

Plaintiffs

Plaintiff Description:

Private plaintiffs who were victims of sterilization abuse under a family planning clinic funded and controlled by the federal government.

Plaintiff Type(s):

Private Plaintiff

Attorney Organizations:

Southern Poverty Law Center

Public Interest Lawyer: Yes

Filed Pro Se: No

Class Action Sought: Yes

Class Action Outcome: Granted

Defendants

Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (District of Columbia), Federal

Office of Economic Opportunity (District of Columbia), Federal

Defendant Type(s):

Hospital/Health Department

Facility Type(s):

Government-run

Case Details

Causes of Action:

Ex parte Young (federal or state officials)

Constitutional Clause(s):

Due Process

Due Process: Procedural Due Process

Equal Protection

Available Documents:

Complaint (any)

Injunctive (or Injunctive-like) Relief

Any published opinion

Outcome

Prevailing Party: Plaintiff

Nature of Relief:

Injunction / Injunctive-like Settlement

Source of Relief:

Litigation

Content of Injunction:

Preliminary relief granted

Issues

General/Misc.:

Informed consent/involuntary medication

Reproductive rights:

Counseling (reproductive rights)

Sterilization/sexual rights