Though no country’s immigration system can claim to be inherently perfect, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) has been caught in a series of abominable human rights scandals in the past 4 years, which has led to widespread local and international calls for policy reform. There have been countless reports of innocent children within the immigration system being kept in cages, widespread family separation, physical abuse, and most recently — forced sterilization of women inside ICE detention facilities.
On September 14, 2020, Dawn Wooten, a nurse working at an ICE detention centre in Georgia, filed an official Whistleblower complaint against the agency. Wooten cited testimony from multiple sources within the facility who disclosed that they had been subjected to coerced hysterectomies, without being given any information on why the procedure was being done.
Medically, a hysterectomy is defined as the complete or partial removal of the uterus, which effectively inhibits a woman’s ability to menstruate or conceive a child. If substantiated, claims of these procedures being forced upon women without proper consent would present a clear violation of reproductive autonomy and basic human rights. ICE’s negligence in obtaining informed consent is also concerning as these women might not be aware of the potential adverse effects of the procedure, which include blood clots, serious infections, and damage to the surrounding organs.
As shocking as these claims are, they are not new to the age of immigration enforcement under the Trump administration. Rather, they are the latest manifestation of nearly a century of systemic efforts by the U.S. government to impose forced sterilization procedures on women within marginalized communities. It is almost unfathomable to imagine that such acts of medical malpractice could be committed with seemingly no regulation in today’s society. Therefore, in order to fully understand the devastating implications of these contemporary policies, it is essential to first uncover the long history of intersectional patterns of race and gender based violence in the United States.
20th Century Eugenics
The turn of the 20th century in the U.S. is often seared into our collective historical memory as a time of economic prosperity, social liberation, and fantastic developments in scientific progress. But behind this mirage of wealth and advancement lay a sinister reality of horrific atrocities committed by the U.S. government against marginalized communities, all in the name of “science.”
The utilization of reproductive procedures as tools of experimentation, discrimination, and control were officially institutionalized in 1907 when the state of Indiana passed the world’s first sterilization law. This policy, which 31 other U.S. states proceeded to adopt, was based on the concept of Eugenics — a term most often associated with the genocidal crimes committed by the Nazi regime, who in fact used U.S. models of medical experimentation to inform their own sinister practices.
The “medical” justification for U.S. sterilization laws were originally based on the assertion that those targeted were mentally unfit to reproduce. Thus, sterilization procedures became tragically customary at facilities for mentally disabled individuals throughout the first half of the 20th century. These procedures were not based on any actual science, and were largely enforced upon patients in an involuntary manner. Those subjected either did not possess the required capacity to give informed consent or were given misleading information on the realities of the operation.
The Historical Nexus of Race and Gender Based Discrimination
Notions of government mandated population control are a far cry from the modern narratives of inclusion and diversity that permeate current U.S. political discourse. But that’s exactly what forced sterilization policies represented — a systematic effort to control, and some would even go as far to say exterminate, groups that the government had pigeonholed into the category of socially undesirable.
This became blindingly apparent during the era of Jim Crow laws in the U.S., as the systemic discrimination promoted by sterilization policies served to exacerbate existing notions of racial inequality. By the mid 1930s, North Carolina had rapidly emerged as a prolific scene for such discrimination. Historical data indicates that between 1937-1966, various state institutions forcibly sterilized Black women at a rate up to 12 times higher than any other demographic.
This is where the intersection of racist and sexist motivations most clearly comes into play — the policy targeting of women was not by random chance, but instead a calculated measure to reproductively disenfranchise women of certain racial or ethnic groups. This is not to discredit the impact of discriminatory sterilization policies on men within minority populations, who were also subjected to procedures known as vasectomies. However, the sexist skew of forced sterilizations being performed against a much higher percentage of women served a pragmatic purpose in terms of population control — as vasectomies are technically reversible, but hysterectomies are not.
So why was population control such a pressing issue for the United States government during the middle of the 20th century? The answer lies in the era of desegregation, which threatened the deeply integrated foundations of White supremacy that several members of high society, especially in the South, had benefited from for generations. Therefore, a response was conceptualized in which control over the Black population, specifically Black women, was reasserted through the manipulation and control of their reproductive rights and capabilities.
Discrimination in California State Institutions
Systemic discrimination against the Black community in North Carolina, as abbhorant as it was, was not a standalone case. In the 1960s and 70s, California became the forefront of reproductive discrimination against the Latina-American population, with one-third of all sterilization procedures performed in the U.S. at that time being in California. Reports, eerily similar to those being filed by contemporary whistleblowers, claimed that thousands of Mexican women had been forcibly sterilized in California state and county hospitals.
In the 1970s, the Madrigal v. Quilligan court case revealed the true extent of the horrors and deception that these women experienced. Eyewitness testimony from several complicit hospitals disclosed that Latina women were given no access to language translators, and were subjected to the withholding of essential medical care (in the case of expectant mothers in labor — painkillers) until they agreed to sign consent forms for sterilization procedures.
The California state prison system was also a site of rampant reproductive discrimination against minority women. Stories of women like Kelli Dillon (whose struggle is emotionally portrayed in the upcoming documentary Belly of the Beast) expose the systemic use of coercive sterilization procedures, which were almost always performed without the informed consent of inmates. As per records obtained by the documentary producers, close to 1,400 sterilization procedures were conducted in California state prisons from 1997-2013. This statistic is made all the more appalling by the fact that a majority of these women were not even aware of the realities of the procedures (e.g. the permanent inability to conceive) until years after they had undergone the surgeries.
Reparations And The Continued Struggle
The tireless work of U.S. legal advocates for minorities and women’s rights has led to a series of recent developments in the struggle for reproductive equity and reconciliation across the country. In response to this pursuit of justice, North Carolina and Virginia have offered victims of forced sterilizations up to $25,000 in compensation. No amount of money could ever erase the trauma and betrayal of trust that these victims will reckon with for the rest of their lives, but it is certainly a step in the right direction for the government’s acceptance of responsibility.
California on the other hand, has not implemented any formal policy of reparations or financial settlement for the thousands of victims targeted by its various state institutions. In fact, the use of coerced sterilizations in prisons was only officially banned in the state six years ago, partially in response to the harrowing testimony of victims who came forward to demand legal justice for the fate that so many had suffered.
Despite the inaction of the state government, victims and advocates in California have advanced their legal efforts by pushing for a comprehensive reparations bill. This would not only ensure the widespread facilitation of financial compensation, but also includes an outreach program, which provides information to groups of marginalized and incarcerated individuals affected by forced sterilization procedures. As it stands, the California state legislature has declined to take any decisive action on the implementation of the bill, claiming a financial inability to do so due to COVID-19.
The prospect of an incoming administration that does not run on a platform of instilling hatred and mistrust of immigrants and minority groups is certainly cause for cautious optimism that agencies such as ICE, will be held to much higher standards. This however, will not automatically reverse more than a century of reproductive human rights violations committed by a multitude of U.S. institutions, which the Trump administration simply served to further legitimize.
Given this entrenched history of discrimination, financial, legal, and institutional support of reparations programs will be key to upholding sustained government responsibility. This, along with the thorough investigation of any claims relating to the infringement of reproductive autonomy, are essential to ensuring that such a horrific history will not have the chance to repeat itself.