Forced Hysterectomies Are Familiar for BIWOC

Forced hysterectomies at ICE facilities
Photo credit: David Ryder – Getty Images

After brave whistleblower and nurse Dawn Wooten announced immigrant women were being forced to have hysterectomies at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Irwin County Detention Center, public shock and outcry instantly followed (understandably and rightfully so), as well as comparisons to eugenics during the time of Nazis in Germany. The report Wooten filed stated that those in charge at Irwin Detention Center, which is owned and run by a private corporation called LaSalle Corrections, refused to test immigrant detainees for COVID, knowingly neglected medical and safety complaints, put detainees and staff at risk of contracting COVID, under-reported positive cases, as well as many other horrific and dangerous acts including having a doctor nicknamed the “uterus collector” perform forced hysterectomies on many women at the facility who woke up post-surgery confused and devastated.

We already know that these immigration detention facilities are barbaric and torturous, just as their jail and prison counterparts. Women and children have reported being sexually assaulted by ICE guards, the older kids are forced to care for toddlers and babies since they’re not with their parents, and most suffer from PTSD-related symptoms if and when they’re reunited with their families. The hysterectomies are just the latest horror that brown and Black women are having to face while imprisoned in these torture cages. It’s important to recognize while we’re reading more of these devastating stories about forced sterilization and torture of immigrant women that America has been performing these acts on people, and specifically non-white women, for centuries. In fact, much of what the Nazis did related to eugenic sterilization was inspired by what America had done to Black women. In an article by the Kali Holloway for The Daily Beast, she wrote, “I have studied with interest the laws of several American states concerning prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny would, in all probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial stock,” Hitler reportedly told a Nazi colleague. “I’m sure that occasionally mistakes do occur as a result. But the possibility of excess and error is still no proof of the incorrectness of these laws.”

Forced hysterectomies have always been common practice for those deemed deficient or less than. An article in the Huffington Post reported that 60,000 people were sterilized in the U.S. after 32 states passed sterilization laws from 1907 to 1937. In the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., said “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” In North Carolina, doctors would sterilize women poor, primarily Black women after they’d given birth. These forced hysterectomies were considered Mississippi Appendectomies “because they would tell women that they needed to get their appendix out, but then sterilize them.” Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer coined the name after she went to the hospital to have a tumor removed and was instead sterilized without her consent. Dorothy Roberts, author of Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty wrote “During the 1970s sterilization became the most rapidly growing form of birth control in the United States, rising from 200,000 cases in 1970 to over 700,000 in 1980. It was a common belief among Blacks in the South that Black women were routinely sterilized without their informed consent and for no valid medical reason. Teaching hospitals performed unnecessary hysterectomies on poor Black women as practice for their medical residents.”

Hysterectomies and other processes of sterilization have also been performed on incarcerated people since jails and prisons were created. On May 15, 2017, General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield signed an order crediting 30 days of jail time to incarcerated men who would agree to undergo vasectomies. In an interview, Benningfield said “I hope to encourage them to take personal responsibility and give them a chance, when they do get out, to not to be burdened with children. This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves.” In 1907, Indiana was the first state that allowed the sterilization of who they determined were “idiots,” “imbeciles,” “confined criminals,” and “rapists.” The doctor who performed the hundreds of vasectomies on incarcerated men defended his practice, saying “We owe it not only to ourselves, but to the future of our race and nation, to see that the defective and diseased do not multiply.” These forced processes have occurred in jails and prisons all across America, not just in the deep south. In 2013, the Center for Investigative Reporting found that nearly 150 women incarcerated in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation were sterilized, receiving tubal ligations in violation of prison rules, from 2006 to 2010 and at least 100 more back in the 1990s. Medical staff at the prisons were alleged to have coerced the women into having the procedures. This Duke Law journal article by Elise B. Adams titled “Voluntary Sterilization of Inmates for Reduced Prison Sentences” includes countless other devastating examples of hysterectomies, vasectomies, tubal ligations, etc., performed on incarcerated people throughout history.

Comparing the forced hysterectomies of immigrant women in ICE facilities to that of Nazi eugenics is an easy choice, but Americans need to reckon with their history and what is still done to poor, primarily Black and Brown people deemed unfit and undesirable to reproduce. America has always and continues to determine whose lives and choices should and shouldn’t matter. Until Americans acknowledge that their government practices sterilization on a massive level similar to that of, or even greater than the Nazis, they’ll shake their heads at articles about medically racist atrocities and continue looking the other way.