ICE's alleged detainee hysterectomies add to a dark U.S. history of forced sterilization

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In 2003, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was created with the mission to "protect" the United States from "illegal immigration that threaten[s] national security and public safety." Since then, and under that guise of protection, ICE has repeatedly targeted immigrants with violence, implementing biometric surveillance programs, family separation, and more. Amidst ramped up calls to defund and dismantle ICE for good, there's now another horrific report to add to the mix.

On Monday, legal advocacy groups Project South, Georgia Detention Watch, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, and the South Georgia Immigrant Support Network filed a whistleblower complaint on behalf of Dawn Wooten, a nurse who formerly worked at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) in Georgia. The facility has a track record of human rights violations and is operated by LaSalle Corrections, a Louisiana-based private prison company that faced numerous abuse allegations last year.

The complaint, which partially centered around the facility's mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, raised alarms regarding hysterectomies being performed on immigrant women. Per the complaint, one detained immigrant told Project South that she met at least five different women detained between October and December 2019 who underwent a hysterectomy, all of whom seemed confused about why they had the procedure.

“When I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp," the woman said, according to the complaint. "It was like they’re experimenting with our bodies.'"

In addition to the detained woman's testimony, the complaint highlighted Wooten's concern. "'Everybody's uterus cannot be that bad,'" she reportedly said. The complaint claimed other nurses had concerns about the gynecologist performing the hysterectomies and dubbed him "the uterus collector."

The allegations don't sit well with other members of the medical community. "As a health care provider, I am horrified at these reports, which indicate that ICE is subjecting immigrant detainees to unspeakable mistreatment related to their reproductive rights and health and depriving them of their bodily autonomy," Dr. Kristyn Brandi, M.D., an OB/GYN and the board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Health, tells Mic.

In a statement to Mic, ICE spokesperson Lindsay Williams said the agency "does not comment on matters presented to the Office of the Inspector General." Williams added that while ICE "takes all allegations seriously...general, anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve.”

Given ICE's history, though, it is fair to consider those remarks with skepticism as well. "These latest actions are part of a long track record by the Trump administration of cruelty toward immigrants and disdain for their health, including detaining thousands of pregnant immigrant women in crowded, inhumane detention centers, separating of families, and attempting to block pregnant immigrant minors from accessing abortion," Brandi says.

Following William's statement, ICE released additional comments from Dr. Ada Rivera, Medical Director of the ICE Health Service Corps. "ICE vehemently disputes the implication that detainees are used for experimental medical procedures," Rivera said. "Detainees are afforded informed consent, and a medical procedure like a hysterectomy would never be performed against a detainee's will."

However, the complaint alleges detained women don't get appropriate translation services when medical information is being conveyed to them. Nurses may use Google or ask another detained person to translate, which can cause confusion. One woman was reportedly given three different explanations from three different people regarding "what was being done to her body."

Brandi, who performs hysterectomies and sterilizations, stresses how much of an issue the lack of informed consent is. "A core tenet in medicine is for patients to have autonomy," she says. "When offering a procedure, I want to make sure patients have the opportunity for truly informed consent — to understand all of the pros and cons of a procedure so they can make an informed choice about what is best for their health."

It is unclear exactly how many detained women may have been sterilized at ICDC. And while the complaint focuses on one facility alone, its allegations sit within a larger legacy of violence. Cynthia Garcia, the Campaign Manager for Community Protection at United We Dream, tells Mic the complaint is "a disturbing reminder of what we’ve known for a long time: abolishing ICE is an imperative."

"Whether it’s human rights abuses like forced hysterectomies, or ICE refusing to release people in detention to be with their families and protect them from exposure to COVID-19, the way ICE operates is systemic," she says. "This isn’t about one detention center in one city. ICE is working as it was designed: inflicting terror and pain on immigrant communities."

While ICE urges people to treat the complaint with skepticism, many find it believable because forced sterilization has happened before in the U.S.. "This country has a long and dark history with controlling people’s bodies," Garcia says. "From policing gender identity, incarceration of the LGBTQ community, and denying working class people of color from basic access to healthcare...This is not about one incident at one detention camp. This entire system was built to control our bodies."

Indeed, reproductive control is one way in which the U.S. has historically exercised power over oppressed communities. "The idea that communities of color are inferior and need to have their reproductive lives controlled is a core component of white supremacy," Brandi says. "Since the days of slavery where Black people's reproduction was literally bought and sold, power structures in the U.S. have been designed to coerce women of color into having or not having children, regardless of their wishes."

Situating eugenics squarely within white supremacy helps to illuminate its full history in the U.S, especially in cases where it was not always labeled as such. Broadly, eugenics can be viewed as a project to build the ideal human population by getting rid of undesirables — either traits or entire groups of people. ICE's own mission is reminiscent of the logic found in Buck v. Bell, a 1927 Supreme Court case that upheld the state of Virginia's right to forced sterilization of "feebleminded" people who were deemed a threat to the welfare of society. ICE has long used language — such as "illegal aliens," which human rights advocates critique as dehumanizing — to paint immigrants as undesirables. They are deemed a threat that must be removed.

In Buck v. Bell, disability was the undesirable trait in question, but eugenics can also target Black people, Native Americans, poor people, and anyone sitting at those intersections. Over the past several decades, there have been numerous programs to sterilize women of color. Between the 1930s and 1970s, the U.S. sterilized about one-third of women in Puerto Rico. In the 1970s, doctors sterilized approximately 25 percent of Native American women without their consent. Then, there was the widespread sterilization of Black women throughout the South, known as the "Mississippi appendectomies." Given ICE detains more Haitian families than any other nationalities, and yet Black immigrants are consistently erased from conversations, these links to anti-Black violence cannot be understated.

As the new allegations regarding ICE detainees show, the issue of forced sterilization and reproductive harm never fully went away. "The recent reports about ICE detainees receiving forced or coerced hysterectomies demonstrates how white supremacy’s long legacy of cruelty and violence persists in the current actions of our government and impacts people’s ability to decide if and when they become pregnant," Brandi says. Whether it is in an ICE facility or a California prison — where reports of sterilizations without consent surfaced in 2013 — the U.S. continues to utilize sterilization and reproductive violence.

Despite this and the long legacy of eugenics through reproductive violence, women continue to fight for their rights to reproduce. As Zintkala Mahpiya Wi Blackowl, who gave birth at a Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp told Indian Country Today, "Having babies is my act of resistance."