ICE’s Forced Sterilizations Are a Crime Against Humanity

September 19, 2020 | 9:37 am
Paula Garcia
Senior Bilingual Energy Analyst and Energy Justice Lead

En español

Remembering Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. An extraordinary and tireless champion of justice, someone that “help[ed] repair tears in [our] society” and move the country forward.

It hurt my eyes and soul when I saw the news of forced sterilizations of migrant women conducted by the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). We learned about this thanks to Dawn Wooten, a brave Black nurse working at an ICE facility in Georgia who recently filed a whistleblower complaint reporting horrendous medical practices against immigrants.

This is not the first, second or even third time that Black, Brown, poor, Indigenous and incarcerated people have been subject to unethical, invasive medical procedures without their explicit consent. The United States has a long history of forced medical procedures and experimentations on people of color and persons with physical and mental disabilities based on eugenics, a collection of pseudo-scientific ideas about the supposed physical and moral strengths and weaknesses inherent in a person’s race or ethnic origin.

As repulsive as these sound today and as much as they may evoke the monstrous human experiments conducted by the Third Reich, these ideas and practices were inspired by and embedded in mainstream scientists and scientific societies in the early 20th century in the United States. A cornerstone of such ideas was and still is codified in population control programs via forced sterilization of women and men.

There is never any moral or practical justification for coerced sterilization. We cannot let this happen again. The following “ABC” of racism in science and law enforcement is a sobering reminder of just a few moments in history. Enough is enough!

Caveat: The alphabet isn’t enough to describe the horror.

A is for Arbitrary detentions. Thousands of asylum seekers fleeing persecution, torture, or death in their countries of origin have been locked up behind bars indefinitely without due process. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), this practice “violates the Constitution, breaks U.S. immigration and international laws, and goes against the Department of Homeland Security’s written policy.”

B is for Black women. From the time of slavery to the present day, the reproductive rights of Black women have been heavily regulated. In Killing the Black Body, Dorothy Roberts exposes America’s systemic abuse of Black women’s bodies, which spans from slave masters’ taking financial advantage of women’s fertility so that children could be owned and sold at their masters discretion’, to being sterilized as recently as nowadays.

C is for California. Prisons in California are said to have authorized the sterilizations of nearly 150 female inmates between 2006 and 2010. Inmates, the majority of which were Black and Latinas, have said these were done under coercion. The state of California is also infamous for having conducted the largest number of sterilizations in the country (20,000 between 1909 and 1979).

D is for Davenport – Dr. Charles Davenport—a biologist at the University of Chicago—and his collaborator Dr. Henry Laughlin led the Eugenics Records Office (ERO) research agenda with support and funding from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)’s Science journal and the Carnegie Institution.

E is for Eugenicist practices: In 1914, Harry Laughlin published the Model Eugenical Sterilization Law aiming to authorize the sterilization of the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, criminals and people of color. This was used to codify the sterilization of women in 30 U.S. states and Puerto Rico.

Eugenical Sterilization Map of the United States, 1935; from The Harry H. Laughlin Papers, Truman State University

F is for Forced sterilizations. It is estimated that 70,000 women were subject to forced sterilizations during the 20th century in the U.S.

G is for Guatemala. From 1946 to 1948 the U.S. Public Health Service deliberately infected orphans, inmates, psychiatric patients and prostitutes with sexually transmitted diseases to determine what drugs worked best in stopping the diseases.

H is for Haiti: Haitian families make up 44 percent of families in ICE concentration camps. The narrative about asylum seekers should account for Black immigrants and the specific challenges they face. For example, bail bonds for Haitian families are much higher than for other immigrants causing longer periods in custody.

Almost half of the families currently locked up by ICE are Haitian

I is for India. In 1975 more than six million people were sterilized when the Prime Minister suspended civil liberties in a “national emergency.” India’s ambitious population control program was encouraged by loans from the World Bank, the Swedish International Development Authority, and the United Nations Population Fund.

J is for Juvenile detention centers. At least three of ICE’s juvenile detention facilities have been accused of mistreating kids, with one of those even been cited by Pennsylvania’s regulators for “alleged sexual harassment and sexual abuse, as well as excessive use of force to restrain children.”

K is for Kids separated from their families. Since 2017, more than 5,000 children have been separated from their families by the current administration.

The Women Disobey protest against US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) “zero tolerance” policy separation children and families at the US/Mexico border.

L is for Language. Immigrants with limited English proficiency face additional barriers to be able to navigate the immigration process, seek legal counsel, get proper medical assistance, and make informed choices. This can even have life-threatening implications; such was the case that resulted in the deaths of two children from Indigenous Mayan communities under ICE custody in 2018. Although Executive Order 12166 requires ICE to provide translated materials and contract interpreters, in reality, budget constraints and remote locations are being used to justify other alternatives (if any) such as the use of video services that often fail due to poor Internet connectivity.

M is for Mexican immigrant women. The documentary No Más Bebés by Renee Tajima-Peña tells the story of Mexican immigrant women who were permanently sterilized without informed consent or under duress after going to a Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center hospital in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A class-action suit against the hospital, Madrigal v. Quilligan, was unsuccessful but served to better inform consent for patients.

Native American women. With the passing of the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act of 1970, close to 25 percent of Native American women of childbearing age were sterilized.

Outdated laws. To this day, U.S. law still allows forced sterilization of anyone deemed “unfit.” (see “V”)

Puerto Rico. In 1939, a law institutionalized the population control program. Over the next 40 years, close to one-third of Puerto Rican women were sterilized, the highest rate of sterilization in the world.

Q is for Queer Rights. The rights of queer persons are also violated by anti-scientific discrimination. According to the Georgetown Law Library, historically, those who “strayed from the traditional gender roles assigned at birth were often characterized as mentally defective or psychopaths. Treatments for individuals exhibiting these traits varied from sterilization and castration to lobotomies and conversion therapy.

R is for both Racism and Racial Hygiene. Population control via forced sterilizations was used by Adolf Hitler’s regime to advance his unscientific views on race. “Racial hygiene”, for example, refers to the abominable practice of controlling population growth of a particular race to eliminate “undesirable” characteristics such as physical malformations, genetic deafness, epilepsy, or blindness. This was carried out by scientists in Nazi Germany, and they took a cue or two from the research conducted by the Eugenics Records Office in the United States, which was funded by leading American scientific societies (see “E”).

S is for Surgical Sterilization. In 2019, the government of Japan upheld a law that requires that transgender persons who wish to obtain legal recognition of their gender identity must submit to surgical sterilization. In addition to being a cruel practice based on the falsehood that transgender persons are mentally ill, the requirement violates Japan’s human rights obligations and is in opposition to international medical standards.

Tuskegee. More than 600 Black men unwittingly participated in an experiment by the U.S. Public Health Service to examine the effects of untreated syphilis from 1932 to 1972. The men were thought that they were going to be treated for “bad blood” but in reality, no proper treatment to cure them was provided.

United States. Systematic forced sterilization is a Crime against Humanity. However, the International Criminal Court does not have universal jurisdiction and the U.S. is one of the few countries to exclude itself.

V is for Virginia. In 1924, the Commonwealth of Virginia authorized the compulsory sterilization of the intellectually disabled. The Buck v. Bell case was the result of an effort by eugenicist that wanted to see if the law was constitutional. In 1927 the US Supreme Court decided that states may sterilize inmates of public institutions setting a nefarious legal precedent, and resulted in the sterilization of Carrie Buck, a poor White woman who was raped by a relative of her foster family.

W is for Wooten. Dawn Wooten is a nurse who worked at an ICE facility in Georgia. She filed a whistleblower complaint alleging high rates of hysterectomies at the facility without detainee’s informed consent, as well as unsafe work conditions to face COVID-19. She’s being represented by the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower protection organization, and Project South, a social justice advocacy group.

X is for Xenophobia. Xenophobia and racism have spread like a virus with the arrival of COVID-19. The use of anti-Chinese rhetoric to refer to the pandemic origins in Wuhan, China has fueled Anti-Asian discrimination and harassment raging from microaggressions to violent physical attacks. We’re in the middle of a fight against the coronavirus disease and should support each other instead of stigmatizing people by attaching locations or ethnicity to the disease. “We can better prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect those who may have it when we speak about it with accuracy, empathy, and care — something we should all be committed to.”

Y is for Youth. There are records of girls as young as 12 years old being sterilized without their consent. The Relf v. Weinberger case brought light to the story of two poor Black women in the South, Minnie and Mary Alice Relf, who were sterilized at the ages of 12 and 14. Their mother was illiterate and signed with an X a paper thinking that her daughters were going to receive birth control shots. In reality, the girls were surgically sterilized. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Relf sisters uncovering the wide-spread sterilization abuse funded by the federal government and practiced for decades. As a result of the lawsuit, federal dollars cannot be used for coerced or forced sterilizations, and informed consent is required before performing sterilization procedures.

Z is for Zero humanity and dignity. Overcrowded concentration camps with frigid temperatures and deplorable conditions; force-feeding; families torn apart; abuse and mistreatment under ICE custody including forced sterilizations and even deaths: “ICE is rotten to the core.”

What Dawn Wooten is denouncing just adds to a long list of human rights violations committed by ICE and an even longer history of women reproductive rights injustices. Let’s not repeat history’s mistakes!

Add your name here if you want to speak up and speak out against this latest atrocity, and make a commitment to dismantle and rebuild every system that causes harm to our bodies, our families, and our communities.

Note: Thanks to my colleagues Juan Declet-Barreto for his input and Camilo Esquivia-Zapata for ensuring that we can also share this blog in Spanish (soon to be uploaded).