On September 14, a host of civil rights groups filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General containing allegations by whistleblower Dawn Wooten that immigrant women were forced to have hysterectomies at the ICE detention center in Ocilla, Georgia, where she worked as a nurse. Wooten said that all of the operations were performed by a gynecologist who she referred to as “the uterus collector” in the complaint. In response, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and more than 160 Democrats demanded that the Department of Human Services launch an investigation.
In the letter demanding the investigation, the politicians wrote: “These reports hearken back to a dark time in U.S. history in which 32 states passed eugenic-sterilization laws, resulting in the sterilization of between 60 and 70 thousand people in the early 1900s.
The letter is misleading in that it implies that such practices ended during the early 20th century. In truth, the United States has a long—and continuing—practice of forcibly sterilizing women of color. For instance, thousands of Native American women had forced hysterectomies in the 1960s and ’70s through a federal program with the Indian Health Service. And in North Carolina, more than 7,600 people were sterilized in a state-sanctioned program that did not end until 1977.
The organization California Latinas for Reproductive Justice (CLRJ) fights for survivors of forced sterilization while also leading efforts to end this government-mandated practice. Here, Executive Director Laura Jiménez explains the ways that the scientific theory of eugenics, which advocates selective reproduction in order to “improve” the human species, advances policies that prey on Black and Brown bodies. She also emphasizes that there is a need for a mass national reeducation in order to protect reproductive health.
Colorlines: While horrible, what is happening at the ICE detention centers is not surprising given this country’s history of forced sterilizations of women of color. Why do you think so many, including media outlets, have reacted with shock?
Laura Jiménez: So much of it has to do with this part of our history not being taught in schools. We talk about racism in official ways—like racism and slavery—but not the other ways that systemic racism has affected multiple communities in the United States over the past 500 years. That’s why people don’t really understand medical racism and these occurrences come as a complete shock.
CL: Do you think this incident, which has been widely reported, could finally let people know that this happens?
LJ: I compare it to the issue we’ve been struggling with around state violence against Black people. How many times have we seen a Black person [attacked] by an agent of the state? [Rodney King in 1991 was the first time to see it on camera]—and in 29 years, it’s happened over and over again. So I don’t think this will be the one. We are talking about Black and brown bodies having medical violence used against them. These are bodies that don’t matter to the media and government. Also, until we start learning about eugenics in school, people will continue to not know.
CL: Discuss how eugenics connects to what happened in the ICE detention center.
LJ: The practice of eugenic science was not limited to the early 1900s like we read about. Eugenics is integrated insidiously into different systems. There are all of these theories as to what kinds of people are fit to reproduce. And Black and Brown people are not, according to the mentality of the dominant culture, deemed fit to reproduce. So there are all of these ways to stop population growth that is a part of eugenics. Forced sterilization is one of the more egregious ways we see this happen.
These were immigrant bodies that this happened to in this particular case. And right now there is a president who talks about people from outside of the country in particular ways that [suggest] they are not fit to reproduce. Black, Brown, disabled, trans, queer, poor bodies [are the bodies being targeted] — not only in medicine but in immigration policy and how people are sentenced in certain crimes. Everything needs to be seen in this context of eugenics.
It’s also important to note in this case that the whistleblower is a Black woman living in rural Georgia. So we are not just talking about Black and Brown women who had violence committed against them, but this Black woman who is a potential target.
CL: What work does California Latinas for Reproductive Justice do around forced sterilizations? And how did the organization become involved in this area?
LJ: A lot of our work has been education around this issue. About five years ago, we worked with the producer and director of the film No Más Bébes [about Mexican people who underwent forced hysterectomies in a Los Angeles hospital in the late 1960s and 70s]. When the documentary was released, we went to screenings to talk about reproductive justice and this act of forced sterilization. Then three years ago, we started working with a coalition of folks to co-sponsor a bill, the Eugenics Sterilization Compensation Program, to compensate survivors of eugenics.
We modeled our legislation after Virginia and North Carolina. Both have laws for compensation for survivors. The California legislature has not passed our bill yet, but we are very passionate about this issue. What does it mean to take away someone’s basic right to be a parent? The country is not going to take this kind of crime seriously until someone is forced to take accountability.
CL: Beyond legislative change, what can people do to help stop this?
LJ: We need to become aware of what is happening. Share resources where you can learn what eugenics science looked like in the past and looks like now. Read the books Killing the Black Body (Dorothy Roberts) and Fertile Matters (Elena Gutiérrez). A number of organizations are working on this, look at what they do. For this particular case, Project South has been leading. They filed the complaint and uncovered the information. The main thing is to learn about it if you don’t know and teach other people.
Ayana Byrd is a Philadelphia-based writer who covers reproductive justice and the intersection of racism and beauty culture.