As news broke this week that ICE was performing hysterectomies on non-consenting detainees in Georgia, countless people expressed shock and anger at the news, which was brought to light by whistleblower Dawn Wooten, who had been a nurse at the detention center. But, dismaying as this news was, it was hardly surprising: The U.S. has a well-documented, centuries-long history of forcibly sterilizing people, particularly women of color.
From eugenics campaigns a century ago to the current-day hysterectomies being performed in ICE facilities, attacks on the reproductive freedom of marginalized people are baked into the history of the U.S., and include things like denying hysterectomies for trans men who need them for gender-affirming reasons. It's important to remember, too, that reproductive justice — a term coined by a group Black women — doesn’t just mean access to abortion; it means the freedom to reproduce on your own terms and to be provided the support and access to resources required to do so. But many people over the course of history have not had that choice.
Forced sterilization has been used as a genocidal tactic, one designed to prevent or limit the ability of certain segments of the population from being able to reproduce. “Forced sterilization is a deliberate, systemic, and targeted devaluation of Black, Brown, and Indigenous women, people, and families,” reproductive justice organization If/When/How wrote on Twitter. “[It] is intended to incite terror in Black and Brown and Indigenous communities here and abroad, to foment despair and hopelessness, and to erase the futures of Black, Brown, and Indigenous families everywhere.”
The practice of experimenting with sterilization officially started in the U.S. nearly 100 years ago. The Racial Integrity Act of 1924 encouraged the sexual sterilization of institutionalized people in Virginia in order to improve the "health of the patient and the welfare of society." In the 1927 case Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court upheld that statute and the decision resulted in 70,000 sterilizations of people deemed "unfit" to reproduce, largely due to mental illness, but also because of physical disability, poverty, or race.
Author Adam Cohen, who wrote the book Imbeciles about the Buck case, draws parallels between the rhetoric that allowed those sterilizations and anti-immigrant narratives pushed today, telling NPR, "I think these instincts to say that we need to stop these other people from 'polluting us,' from changing the nature of our country, they're very real.” In that way, there is a direct line from the Buck case to the hysterectomies perpetrated by ICE.
These practices continued for decades, and in the 1970s, the U.S. government forcibly sterilized as many as 70,000 Native women through the Indian Health Service. An estimated 25 percent of Native women of childbearing age were sterilized by 1976. This assault on the reproductive freedom of Native women was occurring at the same time feminists were celebrating the expansion of women’s right to choose, thanks to the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, making clear the disparities of who had the ability to access that freedom and who did not.
This was also a distinction that could be seen when thousands of Mexican women who had come to the U.S. had been forcibly sterilized between the 1920s and 1950s for being deemed “immigrants of an undesirable type.” In the 1960s and 1970s, Mexican women in Los Angeles were deceived into having non-consensual sterilizations in order to receive medical care or have their babies delivered. That case was brought to light when a brave group of Chicano women spoke out and participated in a class-action lawsuit. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, nearly one-third of women in Puerto Rico were sterilized as part of a mass eugenics campaign, something that continues to impact Puerto Rican women and the larger Puerto Rican community today.
In 1973, two Black sisters, Minnie and Marie Relf, were sterilized under the premise of getting birth control shots, and their lawsuit drew national attention to how poor Black women were being targeted by sterilization efforts by the U.S. government. Research by The Sterilization and Social Justice Lab, which is studying the history of sterilization in the United States, shows that sterilization rates for Black women increased as desegregation efforts expanded, evidence of a backlash to integration intended to reassert “white supremacist control and racial hierarchies specifically through the control of Black reproduction and future Black lives,” according to Dr. Alexandra Minna Stern, Professor of American Culture, History, and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan, and leader of the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab.
More recently, in 2010, women in California prisons were subjected to sterilization against their will, and in 2015, a Tennessee judge offered probation to a woman in exchange for sterilization. “America is so scared of Black and Brown people ‘taking over,’ that it commits the most horrific atrocities,” Julissa Natzely Arce Raya, author of My (Underground) American Dream, said on Twitter.
With this long and horrifying national history, it's hard to hold out much hope that things will change, simply because of these most recent allegations. And yet, with so much current movement happening in the fight for racial justice, it's possible to think there might be action taken. Recently, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called for an investigation into the allegations brought forward by Wooten.
“We must close the camps and every detention center across the country. We need to completely rebuild the entire immigration system with the input and leadership of our communities,” the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR) said in a statement. “We demand change at every level and in every system to protect and ensure our health, our rights and our dignity.”