border sterilizations

The ICE Detention Facility Sterilizations Are Nothing New in U.S History

The hysterectomies performed at the Irwin County Detention Center are just one more incident in a long line of racist reproductive practices in America.

October 6, 2020
6 mins read

Are we Nazi Germany? This is the incredulous response when people hear that an American detention facility has been accused of performing nonconsensual hysterectomies — the surgical removal of the uterus— on women. Because of the terror associated with Hitler’s reign, people tend to connect any extreme systemic violence to that period of history. While it is certainly true that the human rights violations of Nazi Germany were abhorrent, there is just as much violent oppression throughout American history. In fact, the sterilization of women of color has been a huge problem in the United States since the 19th century. The sterilizations that took place at Irwin County Detention Center do not constitute a terrible exception; instead, such occurrences are the norm.

America is a country with a deeply racist past, built through the labor of slaves. While chattel slavery is the most obviously violent form that racism has taken throughout America’s history, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) have faced oppression in a multitude of ways throughout the decades.

Often undergirding the rationale for racist oppression is eugenics, the belief that reproduction should be encouraged in certain “desirable” groups and discouraged in other “undesirable” groups. Of course, desirable, in most cases, refers to white, particularly white upper-class people. On the other hand, undesirable generally refers to people of color. Essentially, eugenics calls for the population of people of color to be reduced — or at the very least not increased — by any means necessary.

Even before the term “eugenics” was commonly known, plantation owners during American slavery controlled the reproductive lives of their female slaves. Enslaved women were often beaten to the point of infertility, and those who did carry out successful pregnancies were often separated from their children. As the field of eugenics became more popular, doctors and scientists tried different methods to discourage certain groups from reproducing while encouraging others.

In the early to mid 1900s, they frequently blocked upper-class white women from accessing birth control or voluntary hysterectomies, due to their “desirable” genetics. Around the same time, large numbers of Black women who visited hospitals left without their reproductive organs intact. These women almost never gave consent to the procedure, and were often not even notified that it was happening. After coming to the hospital for routine checkups or minor emergencies, hundreds of women left confused and irreparably harmed by doctors who were supposed to care for them.

According to the whistleblower’s report, the women at the Irwin County Detention Center reacted in much the same way when asked about what had happened to them: confused and hurt. Many of the women at the facility visited an outside gynecologist who performed hysterectomies even when the women’s medical issues did not call for the surgery. One woman explained that she went into the gynecologist’s office to have a cyst removed, but he performed a hysterectomy and she left without her uterus.

The gynecologist sterilized women at the facility in other ways as well. One section of the report describes the predicament of a woman who was scheduled to have her left ovary removed, but the gynecologist removed the right one “mistakenly.” He then went back in to “correct” the mistake by removing the left one. By the end of her time in the gynecologist’s office, she was infertile. Whether by medical incompetence or intentional harm, the gynecologist destroyed her reproductive future. At the time of the report, he had become so notorious among the women of the detention center for his sterilizations that he had been nicknamed “the uterus collector.”

In the world of medicine, patients must be fully informed about what a procedure entails before they can consent to it. As written in the report, the women who visited the gynecologist often expressed that they did not understand why they needed a hysterectomy. In the case of the first woman described above, she went in for a cyst removal and yet received a hysterectomy. Her doctors were not clear with regard to what procedure she needed and why. These women did not and could not have given proper informed consent.

If such gross negligence occurred at a hospital in a predominantly white, upper-class neighborhood, there would be severe and swift consequences for the doctors involved. Yet the Irwin County Detention Center’s gynecologist was permitted to continue practicing. Presumably, he was allowed to mistreat these women and perform these sterilizations because, as immigrants and women of color, they are “undesirable.” Essentially, the Irwin County Detention Center facilitated the practice of eugenics by preventing women of color from reproducing.

There is no doubt that the information coming from the Irwin County Detention Center is disturbing and horrifying. However, it is important to note that none of the atrocities detailed in the report are new or different from what has been happening all over America for centuries. In the last 100 years alone, tens of thousands of Black, Latina and Indigenous women have endured forcible sterilizations because people in power do not believe that they should be able to reproduce. The actions of the gynecologist at the Irwin County facility are not a blip, or an exception; they are part of a long pattern in the history of eugenics. Yet, perhaps the outrage that people are demonstrating in reaction to the whistleblower’s report of the detention center sterilizations is exactly what is needed; it is, above all, vital that those fighting for justice never become numb to the racist atrocities of America.

McKenna Uzelac, Columbia University

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McKenna Uzelac

Columbia University
Psychology and Women & Gender Studies

McKenna Uzelac is a 21-year-old Columbia student who is passionate about social justice, pop music, and fantasy novels. In her free time, she can be found watching "New Girl" and hanging out with her dog, Jack.

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