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Ill Treatment

A new reminder of our long history of coerced sterilizations

The Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, squats glumly in dun-colored fields. The barbed wire enclosure where the detainees get their outside time abuts one side. Like others in hundreds of detention centers around the United States, it looks like a zoo enclosure, as if the builders were unconcerned with the degradation it would impose on the human beings inside. All the ills of the federally mandated but privately run prison complexes of America can be found here but in more egregious iterations: the food is not just terrible, it contains cockroaches and other pests; the women sleep on dirty mats in tiny spaces; there is no way to sanitize, even as a pandemic is in full force, and new inmates gathered up at the border arrive every day. There is no consistent Covid-19 testing, and consequently no adequate treatment.

There are, however, medical procedures. According to Dawn Wooten, a whistleblower whose allegations are listed in a complaint filed with Department of Homeland Security, ICE, and the warden of the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), an unusual number of hysterectomies are being carried out on the center’s female detainees. The procedures were allegedly performed outside the facility, at the nearby Irwin County Hospital, by a physician later identified as Dr. Mahendra Amin. “Everybody he sees has a hysterectomy—just about everybody,” Wooten said as she told the sordid story. Immigrant women, many of them unable to speak any English, were treated as if communication was unnecessary. When they awoke, many were confused about what had been done to them. Nor was it easy to figure it out; Wooten also alleged that medical requests submitted by detained women were regularly shredded without being read. (ICE, meanwhile, has said records indicate only two recorded hysterectomies in recent years were performed on detainees.) 

In Wooten’s complaint, she says she knows of at least five detainees who were sterilized last year. As reported last week by Tina Vasquez on Prism, Washington Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal says she has been “in communication with attorneys representing at least seventeen immigrant women who were forced to have unnecessary procedures—including hysterectomies.” Vasquez spoke by phone with a woman in El Salvador who sought asylum in the United States but was deported in April of 2018. She said that after complaining her “insides kept hurting,” she endured a hysterectomy at the Irwin County Hospital without giving consent.

If such allegations are correct, then ICDC is the site of a forced sterilization initiative carried out in secret but with the tacit approval of the United States federal government. The women who are being victimized are ideal targets. Most speak no English and have no means of communicating with the outside world, almost none of them have legal representation. According to information in the complaint, few of the medical personnel who work with the women have any fluency in Spanish, with communication often enabled by Googling words in Spanish. The sum of the conditions point to a perfect scenario for all sorts of cruelty, the removal of their wombs included among them.

Though it was the allegations of unwanted operations that got most of the media attention, the complaint painstakingly details the “jarring medical neglect” that seems designed to hasten death if not actually cause it. ICDC offers one shower for fifty people, a consistent lack of proper medical care (save perhaps mysteriously conducted surgeries), food riddled with insects, and no soap and sometimes no water. The “death list” compiled by the American Immigration Lawyers Association shows that deaths are occurring. Lawyers file petition after petition to have the detainees released from conditions that endanger their health. Time after time, they lose.

It’s all part of the wider story of immigrant abuse—but it’s the unwanted surgeries story that seems new. Such is the vulnerability of the women that they have almost no means of protesting whatever is being done to them once they go under anesthesia. If the procedure is carried out on women who are about to be deported, there is no easy way to track them to see what was actually done to them. In the eyes of those in Washington developing and then enforcing these secret protocols, the job is done. In their view, one less Hispanic woman able to have children is one more victory for white racial domination.

If the procedure is carried out on women who are about to be deported, there is no easy way to track them to see what was actually done to them.

After the news broke on September 14, Congresswoman Jayapal led a group of 173 members of Congress in circulating a letter condemning the situation at the Irwin County center, and an investigation has been initiated into the matter. Latinx and feminists of color along with anti-ICE activists took to Twitter to decry the inhumanity and depravity. It’s not a bad thing that we can still be shocked by such events. And yet it’s also worth remembering that the desire to treat certain despised women this way is a recurring event in the American annals. The Center for Investigative Reporting disclosed in July of 2013 that more than 140 women in two California prisons had been coerced into sterilization during a period between 2006 and 2010. In fact, California, like many other states, has a long history of forced sterilization: from 1909 to 1964 more than twenty thousand people were sterilized, often because they were considered mentally ill or “deficient.” Under the influence of U.S. eugenicists as well as some feminists promoting birth control, Puerto Rico passed a law in 1937 that led to widespread sterilization, until it was repealed in 1960. Studies from the 1960s and 1970s found that at least one-third of the women of childbearing age in Puerto Rico had been sterilized, the highest rate in the world.

There was a brief moment when it seemed this nation might move away from such hostility to women’s autonomy. Indeed, it could have been different. On the Friday following the release of the news from Georgia, esteemed Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away. The issue of women’s rights over their bodies was suddenly live again, its endangerment now applying not just to the forgotten and ignored brown Hispanic women in the camps but to white middle-class women whose voices are actually heard. It seemed an opportune moment to combine the existing and lurid evisceration of women’s bodies in the camps to white feminists’ own concerns for the right to control their reproductive choices in a Ginsburg-less future.

Feminist empathy is harder to galvanize in practice than it is in columns. So it has been for this issue. The women divested of their wombs in secret and the white women in suburbs who purchase RBG mugs and T-shirts for their Emmas and Sophies were simply too far apart. The latter, an exceedingly powerful group, are interested in a neater, cleaner story of feminism and women’s rights that they could unequivocally celebrate over wine or tea. It is a pity because deeper engagement with the legacy of Ginsburg, a titan in the fight for rights of women just like those imprisoned in ICDC, could have yielded this. Ginsburg voted in favor of recognizing constitutional rights and preserving protections for immigrants in major immigration cases, joining a 5-4 majority that rejected the indefinite detention of immigrants. She also voted with the majority in rejecting arguments in the case that tried to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In Hernandez v. Mesa, she dissented, arguing that the family of a teenager who had been shot and killed from across the border by a Border Patrol Officer should be allowed to sue and seek money damages.

This sort of substantive engagement with Ginsburg’s legacy has been rare. Instead, the Ginsburg mourned was the one transformed into a feminist commodity thanks to the hip rapper-esque label “Notorious RBG.” When her legal opinions are discussed they are the  early ones when the Court was mostly confronted with white women plaintiffs—United States v. Virginia in 1996 (women should be admitted to Virginia Military Institute) and then later Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in 2007 (women’s right to equal pay under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act). Recounted thus, Ginsburg could be mourned in an uncomplicated way that underscored the greatness of American women who rose against the odds and whose bodily autonomy should be guaranteed. But the racialized and gendered cruelties existing in the present and enacted on brown and black bodies kept in barbed-wire camps is less conducive to the mugs and T-shirt feminism. The truly estimable RBG’s legacy was thus separated and kept a good distance away from the complicated story of places like ICDC. It needn’t have been an “either or”; it could have been an “and,” but sadly it was not.

The stars did not align for the women detainees of Irwin County Detention Center. How long might hysterectomies allegedly conducted without informed consent have continued without the recent uproar? What happens when the attention goes away? In a column I published earlier, I discussed the forced genital examinations carried out by the colonial British on Indian women. The idea was to conduct biological examinations that would provide “proof” of the degeneracy of the women and the larger racial category that they represented. The British wanted to believe and to prove that Indian women were morally inferior as proven by their proclivity to try to abort their babies; the American colonial history in Puerto Rico springs from a similar racism, as does the treatment today of immigrants and asylum-seekers. Now, even after most states have outlawed forced sterilization, some Americans still want to make sure that invisible, poverty-stricken women are stopped from procreating at all.