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“Everybody’s uterus cannot be that bad”: Is the U.S. sterilizing Latina women… again?

For nearly four decades, local authorities in the United States pursued a policy of sterilization in poor Latina areas. Puerto Rico’s Law 113, a voluntary program that many women there felt they had to follow because of discriminatory practices towards mothers, led to the sterilization of one in three Puerto Rican women by 1965. In the 1960s and 70s, Mexican-American women in the Los Angeles area were sterilized in procedures they were wrongly told could be reversed. A 1978 lawsuit cleared the hospitals of wrongdoing on the grounds that the women had misunderstood because they did not speak English fluently.

Logo of the Second International Eugenics Conference, 1921

The science of genetics turned ideas about racial superiority and inferior breeding into something that appeared to have a basis in scientific rationality. Eugenics, the idea that humans could selectively breed to produce better humans, isn’t a new thought; it was practiced in ancient Greece and was a foundational part of noble thought and the divine right of kings. But in the 19th and 20th centuries, the idea that science could be used to justify racism was very popular – at least among people who would benefit from racism. Whether it was Imperial Japan’s Investigation of Global Policy with the Yamato Race as Nucleus or the American doctrine of anti-miscegenation, bad science become the cornerstone of racial injustice.

It wasn’t solely racial. The U.S., for example, sterilized anyone considered “feeble-minded,” because mental disability was believed to be genetic and passing it on to future generations was considered inhumane. It was not considered inhumane to forcibly sterilize people. Ah, the distance past of ha ha I’m just kidding these laws are still on the books in many U.S. states. Criminals were also occasionally sterilized but this practice mostly ended after Skinner v. Oklahoma, a 1942 case involving Oklahoma’s repeat offender law. Long story short, the law required repeat offenders to be sterilized unless they just committed white collar crimes – you know, rich people crimes – and the Supreme Court ruled that the law had to apply uniformly to all crimes of the same severity. Oklahoma decided the Skinner ruling, plus the discovery of the depths of the Holocaust a few years later, would bring an end to criminal sterilization.

Sterilization of minorities was also often justified – as it was in Puerto Rico – because of the risk of overpopulation, a risk environmental scientists say has been blown out of proportion. Sterilizing the underclasses left more room for wealthy, well-educated people to procreate, advocates said, and would ultimately create a better planet. But genetics likely plays a very small role in human intelligence, which makes this justification flimsy. Especially because the underclasses were often, in the U.S., the nonwhite or non-English-speaking peoples.

All this brings us to Monday, September 14, when The Intercept broke the news that a former ICE detention center nurse had filed a whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The complaint contains this statement about hysterectomies, which is reprinted here in full:

Ms. Wooten also expressed concern regarding the high numbers of detained immigrant women at ICDC receiving hysterectomies. She stated that while some women have heavy menstruation or other severe issues that would require hysterectomy, “everybody’s uterus cannot be that bad.” Ms. Wooten
explained:

"Everybody he sees has a hysterectomy—just about everybody. He’s even
taken out the wrong ovary on a young lady [detained immigrant woman].
She was supposed to get her left ovary removed because it had a cyst on
the left ovary; he took out the right one. She was upset. She had to go back
to take out the left and she wound up with a total hysterectomy. She still
wanted children—so she has to go back home now and tell her husband
that she can’t bear kids… she said she was not all the way out under
anesthesia and heard him [doctor] tell the nurse that he took the wrong
ovary."

(“He” in the quote above refers to “a particular gynecologist outside the facility” who is not named in the complaint except as “the uterus collector”)

The whistleblower, Dawn Wooten, does not say how many hysterectomies were performed, and likely does not know. The facility is not owned or operated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement but is instead run by LaSalle Corrections, a for-profit company that contracts with ICE. Her complaint is full of other dangerous practices, many of which are related to the COVID-19 pandemic, which the complaint says show a “disregard for public health guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” but it is – perhaps not surprisingly – the hysterectomies that have captivated attention since the complaint was released.

Interestingly, hysterectomies don’t come up in the initial interview with The Intercept, which focuses much more on COVID-19. That might be because the complaint has few details to offer. Wooten only relays what detainees and other nurses told her, and has little direct information to offer; in contrast, she’s very familiar with the COVID-19 violations, and her concerns about those are both empathetic and personal, as she has a serious medical condition.

What, exactly, could happen next? The complaint has caught the attention of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY 14), who sits on the powerful House Committee on Oversight and Reform and its Civil Rights subcommittee.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez says the U.S. must “atone” for its heavy-handed anti-immigration practices. Ocasio-Cortez has pushed for a change to immigration policy, but has not been able to convince the Republican-controlled Senate to go against President Trump. Indeed, what change might come will likely not come until after Trump leaves office in 2021 or 2025.

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