Now and Then: An Analysis of Forced Sterilizations in the U.S.

by Sanjana Sankaran, October 18, 2020

In early September, news broke out about a whistleblower, Dawn Wooten, who alleged ‘medical neglect’ of ICE detainees and shined a light on the occurrence of unwanted mass hysterectomies. Wooten was a nurse who worked at one of the detention centers in Georgia.  She claimed that the care received was improper and unsafe which likely caused the spread of the novel coronavirus. According to the news reports and her statements, approximately seventeen to twenty women have confirmed that they were forcibly sterilized—that is, either their uterus or fallopian tubes were removed.  Wooten called this doctor, who was later identified as Dr. Mahendra Amin, a “uterus collector” (Miroff). Dr. Amin is a member of the Irwin County Hospital and has a private clinic close to the detention center.  Since the allegations have come out, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) wrote a letter that was signed by one hundred and seventy-three other representatives to launch an investigation into the medical practitioners employed by ICE, with a focus on Dr. Amin specifically (Miroff).

While the investigation is still ongoing, we know one thing for certain: we’ve been here before.  The U.S. has a historical precedence of conducting mass unwarranted and unwanted hysterectomies, causing many to worry that these allegations are true.

The development of the gynecological sciences itself is rooted in a history of mistreatment, neglect, and abuse toward Black, Latinx, and indigenous women.  In the 19th century, Dr. J. Marion Sims, who is now considered the father of modern gynecology, forcefully performed a number of experiments on enslaved Black women without the use of anesthesia.  Despite his strategically inhumane testing, Dr. Sims has been lauded for his discoveries and has statues erected in his honor across the country (Lennard). 

We don’t have to look that far in the past to see neglect and abuse in our healthcare system.  In the last century alone, thousands of women were forcibly sterilized across the nation.  At the turn of the 20th century, the eugenics movement started gaining more traction.  Perverting Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” many eugenicists believed it was natural and justified to facilitate the death of those with “unfavorable” genes.  This became shorthand for BIPOC lives, specifically the poor and the disabled.  This widespread scientific belief had shocking sociological implications. In the late 20th century, thirty-two states in the U.S. had federally funded eugenics programs involving sterilizing women who possessed “undesirable” genes (Lennard).   In the 1960s and 1970s, the Indian Health Service, which is the federal healthcare service provider for indigenous peoples, conducted hysterectomies at such a wide scale that the impact is still being felt now even generations later.  Around one in four women, and in some communities, as many as one in two women, were forcibly sterilized (Blakemore).

Figure 1 below provides a timeline of reproductive rights (Chuen).

Figure 1. A History of Racism, Sterilization Abuse, and Reproductive Rights (1919 – 1977).

To better understand the role ICE plays in perpetuating medical neglect and abuse, we must acknowledge the history of malicious activities within this organization.  The immigrant detention centers have been linked with racism and medical malpractice. In 1914, the United States Public Health Service partnered with the eugenics movement and worked together to prevent further immigration. They specifically targeted BIPOC’s, poor people, and the disabled implying they were the ones most likely to be criminals. This false view that BIPOC, especially those who are low income and living with disabilities, are more likely to commit crime than well-off able-bodied white people, still shapes our society today, most notably reforming our criminal justice policy (Ordaz).  Prior to President Trump’s election to office in 2016, ICE had an imperative to detain immigrants with criminal records.  Given the negative stereotyping and implicit bias that police officers have against BIPOC, this was already an unfair policy.  The current administration has since expanded this policy to apply to all immigrants who enter the country without documentation, removing the requirement of criminality.  Many federal investigations conducted over the past four years that have raised serious concerns about the state of ICE detention centers.  Specifically, the centers provide inhumane, unsanitary, and unhygienic conditions for detainees. When Dawn Wooten, the whistleblower, spoke out on the conditions of the ICE camps she stated, “I began to ask questions about why the detainees not be tested — symptomatic or non-symptomatic” (Alvarez).  Operationally, the centers already violate standard protocol and indicate clear negligence and devolution of human life (United States, Dept of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General).

During the Trump era beliefs of white supremacy, xenophobia and misogyny have only increased. His beliefs that all Mexicans are “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists” emboldened the racist’s in the U.S. further dividing an already divided world. It is astounding that the administration that is so clearly pro-life, allows sterilization to take place, it is an oxymoron. This lack of action is because this administration is not pro-life. If the administration were actually pro-life, they would have had a national mask mandate, done shelter in place in February, stop denying the virus’s fatality rate, and keep the Affordable Care Act, especially for those with pre-existing conditions. 

The allegations of mass hysterectomies in ICE right now must be met with the utmost seriousness.  The doctors who have participated in these events or were bystanders should be met with some kind of consequence. The mass hysterectomies are a direct attack against women and are the result of a long upheld belief that not only do BIPOC women not have value but that women should not be in control of their own bodies. Whether it was one or twenty or a thousand, forced hysterectomies are acts of absolute moral malfeasance. 

Below are other resources to learn more about the history of forced sterilization. 

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/09/trump-ice/565772/

https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/mass-hysterectomies-ice-happened-trump-s-watch-they-re-america-ncna1240238

https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/16/us/ice-hysterectomy-forced-sterilization-history/index.html


Works Cited

Alvarez, Priscilla. “Whistleblower Alleges High Rate of Hysterectomies and Medical Neglect at ICE Facility.” CNN, Cable News Network, 16 Sept. 2020, http://www.cnn.com/2020/09/15/politics/immigration-customs-enforcement-medical-care-detainees/index.html. 

Blakemore, Erin. “The Little-Known History of the Forced Sterilization of Native American Women.” Daily JSTOR, JSTOR, 25 Aug. 2016, daily.jstor.org/the-little-known-history-of-the-forced-sterilization-of-native-american-women/. 

Chuen, Lorraine. “A Visualized History of Racism and Reproductive Rights in America.” Intersectional Analyst, Intersectional Analyst, 5 Feb. 2016, http://www.intersectionalanalyst.com/intersectional-analyst/2016/2/4/racismreproductiverights.

Lennard, Natasha. “The Long, Disgraceful History of American Attacks on Brown and Black Women’s Reproductive Systems.” The Intercept, 17 Sept. 2020, theintercept.com/2020/09/17/forced-sterilization-ice-us-history/.

Miroff, Nick. “Hospital Where Activists Say ICE Detainees Were Subjected to Hysterectomies Says Just Two Were Performed There.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 22 Sept. 2020, http://www.washingtonpost.com/immigration/ice-detainee-hysterectomies-hospital/2020/09/22/aaf2ca7e-fcfd-11ea-830c-a160b331ca62_story.html.

Minna, Alexandra. “Forced Sterilization Policies in the US Targeted Minorities and Those with Disabilities – and Lasted into the 21st Century.” The Conversation, 5 Oct. 2020, theconversation.com/forced-sterilization-policies-in-the-us-targeted-minorities-and-those-with-disabilities-and-lasted-into-the-21st-century-143144. 

Ordaz, Jessica. “Perspective | Migrant Detention Centers Have a Long History of Medical Neglect and Abuse.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 18 Sept. 2020, http://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/09/18/migrant-detention-centers-have-long-history-medical-neglect-abuse/.

United States, Department of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General. “Concerns about ICE Detainee Treatment and Care at Four Detention Facilities.” Washington: DHS, 2019. Web. 9 Oct. 2020.


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