Reports of Forced Hysterectomies Against Women of Color in ICE Detention Centers Is Nothing New in America

Supermajority Education Fund

September 17, 2020

Dawn Wooten, a registered nurse who worked full-time at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia until July, filed a complaint on Monday, September 14, 2020, to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, stating that forced sterilization procedures in the form of partial or total hysterectomies were widespread at Irwin, as were other forms of medical negligence. 

It’s legally required for informed consent information to be communicated in a language the subject of a procedure can understand. Yet Wooten stated in her complaint, “these immigrant women, I don’t think they really, totally, all the way understand this is what’s going to happen depending on who explains it to them,” and added that most medical staff members at the detention center don’t speak Spanish.

Priyanka Bhatt, a staff attorney at Project South (which represents Wooten), said that “our coalition has heard from several women who have either had a hysterectomy done or have talked to other immigrants who have had a hysterectomy done” and that one detained immigrant who had spoken with other detainees who’d had hysterectomies recalled thinking, “this was like an experimental concentration camp. It was like they’re experimenting with our bodies.”

Wooten also described other conditions of medical negligence at the detention center, including staff members being pressured to “work symptomatic and work positive as long as we had a mask on,” during the COVID-19 pandemic; ICE has reported 42 COVID-19 cases at the Irwin County Detention Center, which Wooten alleges is not an accurate number. Wooten also said that nurses routinely destroyed the paper requests detainees were required to submit in order to receive medical care, and fabricated vital signs for reports after not seeing patients.

ICE officials are agreeing to cooperate with an investigation, but claim that only two hysterectomies have been performed on detainees at the detention center since 2018.

This incident is just the latest transgression in a long history of forced sterilizations of women in American history. In response to Wooten’s allegations, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stated in a press release that if these allegations are true, they are “a staggering abuse of human rights” which parallels “some of the darkest moments of our nation’s history.”

Pelosi’s statement goes on to directly reference the 70,000 Americans, most of whom were women, who were forced to undergo the eugenic practice of sterilization from the early twentieth century up until the 1970s. The eugenics movement perpetuated the belief that “undesirable” groups, like those who were poor, uneducated, non-white, or disabled, shouldn’t be able to produce offspring that would be a burden to society — these federally funded sterilization programs existed in 32 states. She references Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer biopsy in 1951 resulted in her cancer cells ending up in research laboratories across the world without her family knowing until 1975, and civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hammer, who underwent a nonconsensual hysterectomy.

Pelosi also acknowledged that violating the consent of patients of marginalized identities is not exclusive to women; she mentioned the highly unethical Tuskegee Study, which misled Black men with untreated syphilis to believe they were receiving treatment in order to study the progression of the untreated disease. The study continued from 1932 until 1972 —  after an effective treatment for syphilis had been found — at which journalists began reporting on the study. 

Pelosi did not specifically mention that Latinas have their own historic relationship to this type of malpractice. In the 1960s, one-third of Puerto Rican women underwent forced sterilization, in addition to being subjected to other reproductive experiments without informed consent. Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias, the first Latina president of the American Public Health Association, fought to implement laws federally banning forced sterilization. “The same people who would deny a white middle-class woman her request” for elective sterilization “were the ones who were sterilizing working-class whites, blacks, Puerto Ricans, native Americans, and Mexicans without ever bothering to obtain consent” she said in a 1978 Women & Health article on sterilization abuse.

Wooten’s revelations about this form of ICE’s abuse and negligence of detainees’ bodies is just one symptom of a deeply flawed federal agency. But people can advocate for reform in several ways, including staying informed — the ACLU consistently releases information on ICE and Border Patrol abuses — spreading awareness, being sure to fact-check your sources before doing so to avoid spreading misinformation (via fact-checking guides like The Verge’s), and contacting your representatives.