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Reproductive Injustice: Claims of Coerced Sterilization Under ICE Watch

by Aimee Murphy

The U.S. has a long and dark history of violating the human rights and dignity of incarcerated people, and this week that story continues with allegations of sterilizations forcibly or coercively performed on migrant women held in ICE custody.

In a document released to the public this week by Project South, several whistleblowers accuse the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, GA of horrific medical treatment of immigrant detainees. The statements from whistleblowers highlight a grievous negligence in COVID-19 health procedures within the prison that likely put many people at risk, and they also include claims that one gynecologist has performed coerced hysterectomies on a number of the immigrant women incarcerated there.

The complaint includes details that point to a disregard for the patients’ informed consent. One of the nurses cited claimed that nurses who were not fluent in Spanish would use Google to attempt to obtain consent from detainees. One detainee whistleblower detailed her experience talking to five fellow immigrant detainees who’d had hysterectomies: “When she talked to them about the surgery, the women ‘reacted confused when explaining why they had one done.’ The woman told Project South that it was as though the women were ‘trying to tell themselves it’s going to be OK.’”

Though several of the whistleblowers in the complaint are unnamed due to fear of retaliation, Dawn Wooten, a licensed practical nurse, has gone on the record to share her accounts of having worked at ICDC:

“The ladies would put in to see the gynecologist for whatever reason that they were wanting to be seen for… They would come back, oftentimes, and question … ‘Why did I have to have a hysterectomy? Nobody explained this to me. I didn’t know I was undergoing this.’
I had one lady that told me that she was a young girl, if she had known that she was gonna have a hysterectomy, she wouldn’t have went [to see the gynecologist]. ...the detainees referred to this physician [as ‘The Uterus Collector’]... I had a detainee that asked me, ‘Well, what is he doing, Ms. Wooten, collecting all of our uteruses?’”

Another story on the complaint filed by Project South includes several other instances of medical neglect and a stunning lack of informed consent. For example, one patient cited in the complaint was given three distinctly different reasons for why she was being scheduled for a surgery (hysterectomy) that she did not ask for. With reasons ranging from ovarian cysts to elective womb removal to heavy menstrual bleeding of which the patient had never complained, and two different procedures discussed (womb removal and “dilating her vagina and scraping tissue off”), it seems like there was a lack of full informed consent— perhaps also a physician or a system looking for an excuse to sterilize her.

Additionally, during their investigation on the subject, MSNBC staff found mounting corroborating evidence of Ms. Wooten’s testimony. In one story, Chris Hayes reported that more lawyers had been contacted whose clients received unnecessary hysterectomies while detained at ICDC, one of whom claimed that “ 15 immigrant women were given full or partial hysterectomies or other procedures for which no medical indication existed.”

ICE has so far refuted the claims of these whistleblowers:

“In a statement, ICE told NPR it ‘vehemently disputes the implication that detainees are used for experimental medical procedures.’ It said it does not comment prematurely on the allegations out of respect for the process of matters pending before the inspector general. ICE previously told the Associated Press that while it takes all allegations seriously, ‘in general, anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve.’”

Though I’m eager to see what will come out of a formal investigation, when I consider our nation’s extensive history of eugenic practices, the claims within the complaint are wholly believable. I’ve written on the topic of forced sterilizations on prisoners in the past, and there are piles of documentation of forced and coerced sterilizations on Black, Indigenous, and other minorities within this country. These practices in the U.S. even inspired Nazi eugenics policies. So yet another instance of eugenics —this time against incarcerated immigrants— falls right in line with our nation’s sordid history. As I explored in my first piece from the 2018 Prison Strike, American statutes about the sterilization of prisoners are bleak: neither Buck v. Bell nor Skinner v. Oklahoma completely disallow the practice, and it continues today by the power of institutional coercion.

My last piece on the subject from the Prison Strike of 2018 includes a brief analysis of institutional coercion, particularly within the dynamic of state power versus minority prisoner:

“... by the very nature of the massive power differential at play between the state and those the state incarcerates, it should be clear that any attempt to promote, provoke, or induce a prisoner to have a permanent, non-reversible surgery that would prevent reproduction for the remainder of their life is inherently coercive, unjust, and violent. Informed consent is a near-impossibility in such a situation, when the power differential is so grave, in which the incarcerated person is more or less treated as an object owned by the state. And without informed consent, any surgery performed - especially an irreversible one - is a violence against the patient.”

When I put myself in the shoes of an undocumented immigrant who is hoping for their case for asylum and safe immigration to be heard with compassion, I can see how the power differential would impact the patient-prisoner’s decision-making. In our retributive carceral system, especially when it comes to immigration, compliance is often considered of the highest value. Compliance with the state and compliance with the physician seem rolled into one. My mother and my aunts have horror stories of reproductive coercion against themselves, in which doctors attempted to use their position of authority and power to coerce generally-empowered, non-imprisoned, middle-class, white women into sterilization. When we compound the power dynamics against incarcerated, impoverished, brown Latina women, it should be unsurprising to us to see the horror of forced sterilization happening within our prisons and carceral facilities, especially given our atrocious history.

A woman who is hoping to be “the best candidate” for asylum might see the modern U.S. disdain for children and large families and assume that in order to be accepted into this country, she must limit, restrict, or abolish her childbearing abilities. Physicians recommending hysterectomy to these undocumented immigrants when it is not necessary is a form of reproductive coercion and eugenics. Forced and coerced sterilization, particularly of vulnerable and minority communities, is an act of genocide. Therefore, if indeed the accusations included within this whistleblower complaint are true, then we as a nation are complicit with genocide.

Already, the immigrant detention centers are the equivalent of concentration camps: they are dormitory camps where a concentration of a certain demographic (in this case, asylum-seekers coming outside of “the proper channels”) is being held under the threat of violence. The dangerous health conditions within these centers (particularly during the COVID-19 epidemic) have been documented and called out within whistleblower, detainee, and legal representation complaints on several occasions. Now, to be faced with coerced sterilization under the watch of the state, it seems that our nation is inching closer and closer towards explicit genocide of the “inconvenient” undocumented asylum-seekers. Given the shocking lack of knowledge of the Holocaust by many Americans today, it is doubly troubling to see this cycle of violence crop up within U.S. systems. ICE is a tool of genocide, systemic violence, and xenophobia, and it must be defunded and ended. There are nonviolent, life-affirming solutions to the state-manufactured “immigration crisis,” and we have responsibility to find them, create them, and implement them.

In the meantime, we must call for a comprehensive investigation of ICE (and in particular, ICDC) by an external, unbiased agency. If the claims in question are true, then the physician in question should lose their medical license, and LaSalle Corrections (who owns and runs ICDC) should be sanctioned and potentially shut down for allowing these abhorrent crimes against humanity.


Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

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