Earlier this week, multiple human rights organizations filed a complaint on behalf of women detained at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Georgia. Based on accounts from detainees and corroborated by a nurse who worked at the facility, the Irwin County Detention Center, the complaint alleges multiple examples of substandard medical care, particularly around coronavirus prevention and treatment. But what has drawn the most public outcry is allegations of what has been described as mass hysterectomies or sterilizations.
“When I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp. It was like they’re experimenting with our bodies,” one detained immigrant told Project South, one of the groups who filed the complaint. She said she knew of five other women detained with her at ICDC who said they had undergone hysterectomies between October and December 2019. “I’ve had several inmates tell me that they’ve been to see the doctor and they’ve had hysterectomies and they don’t know why they went or why they’re going,” said Dawn Wooten, the nurse who worked at ICDC and has now come forward as a whistleblower, as quoted in the complaint. “We’ve questioned among ourselves like goodness he’s taking everybody’s stuff out.… That’s his specialty, he’s the uterus collector.”
Since the complaint was made public, further specifics have been reported—one physician involved, more women’s allegations—and others are still emerging. Detained women face risks and complications if they speak to the media, so what we know directly from them is limited. It is not clear how many have had hysterectomies, and if that was part of an explicit policy or widespread pattern at this detention center or possibly others. What we do know is horrific and, as health care providers and experts have noted, part of a troubling history of reproductive coercion, one that remains with us. The immigration detention system is part of this American system of population control.
The ideology of population control for the greater good is deeply embedded in U.S. policy, explained Dorothy Roberts, law and sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, speaking by phone this week after the ICE story broke. “To discourage childbearing by people who are receiving government public assistance—that’s written into laws in many states.” Efforts to expand women’s reproductive choices have been entangled, too, with this ideology. “The origins of the movement for birth control is both a feminist movement and a eugenicist movement, and that’s going on in the 1920s and ’30s, and was only discredited after the Nazi exterminations and their regime of eugenics.” But in the United States, the eugenics project goes back further—“built on top of the enslavement of African people and the denial of their reproductive autonomy altogether.”
Roberts said she sees the same ideology of reproductive control in the present-day policies and practices targeting immigrants, like family separation and now, allegedly, coercive hysterectomies. “Both forced sterilization and the forcible taking of children have been weapons the U.S. government has deployed for hundreds of years,” she told The New Republic. “Both are political weapons that the U.S. government has used against marginalized groups for political reasons—to terrorize them, to punish them, and to marginalize them further.”