Coerced sterilization of women in immigration detention: how did we get here?

By Mariam O. Fofana,

On September 14 2020, the news broke that Dawn Wooten, a former nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), a privately operated Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility, had blown the whistle regarding coerced sterilization of women at the facility. Wooten reported an alarmingly high rate of hysterectomies sometimes performed without the women’s knowledge or understanding. That same week, in front of a nearly all-white audience at a campaign rally in Bemidji, MN, Donald Trump praised their “good genes”. “A lot of it is about the genes”, he stated, to cheering and applause. Trump’s words echoed those of eugenicists who, a century ago, tried to breed out what they perceived to be undesirable traits, and who made coerced sterilization targeted at Black and Latina women their favored tool. It is no accident that as politicians stoke racism and xenophobia, denigrating immigrants as “bringing crime” while lauding white supremacists as “very fine people”, that the old scourge of coerced sterilization should find new life.

Although the abuses at ICDC are egregious in their disregard for human dignity and professional ethics, they are sadly not surprising. Coerced sterilization in the US has been intimately intertwined with racist motives: the undesirable traits that eugenicists sought to decrease were presumed innate to racial and ethnic minorities. Even when eugenicists shifted to environmental determinism, attributing deficient traits to not to biological heredity but rather to inadequate social environments and unfit parents, they still targeted racial and ethnic minorities. Coerced sterilization has also been a tool for racial oppression and genocidal projects across time and geography, as illustrated by the spate of sterilization of Indigenous women during the Fujimori regime in Peru, or the current-day accusations of forcible sterilization of Uighur women in China.

Although it is unclear how long the abuses at ICDC have been going on, and it would be reductive to attribute them solely to the prevailing political and social climate at the time, I worry that the past few years have created an environment that is particularly ripe for such abuse. As incredulous as we may be that such crimes could continue to occur today, it is crucial that we recognize the historical forces that have led us here, so that we may understand our society’s and our profession’s vulnerabilities and address them.

Paper title: Time and time again: the reincarnations of coerced sterilization

Author: Mariam O. Fofana

Affiliation: Massachusetts General Hospital

Competing interests: The author holds stock ownership in the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline

Social media account of post author: @DrMFof

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