Forced Sterilizations Echo History of U.S. Genocide

The violations against the people at Georgia’s detention center reveal the inherently abusive structure of prisons, and fuel the ongoing fight for abolition.

by Maya Hernandez, National Co-Coordinator at the Alliance for Global Justice.

Recently, Project South published a report to call attention to the concerning violations taking place inside Georgia’s Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC). The report details the multiple forced sterilizations conducted by Dr. Mahendra Amin, called the Center’s ‘uterus collector’ by Dawn Wooten, a nurse at ICDC and the primary whistleblower of the violations. In addition, the report reveals the overwhelming medical neglect that permeates the facility; pointing to the significant lack of medical care and the lack of adequate protection against COVID-19. The accusations echo a long history of forced sterilizations in the United States, while also calling our attention to the inherent brutal conditions of a carceral system that cages people and consequently swipes their right to equal and accessible care.

The dark history of forced sterilizations in the United States goes hand in hand with sustained government efforts to stifle the growth of populations deemed ‘undesirable.’ In 1927, the Supreme Court decided to uphold a state’s right to forcibly sterilize a person considered unfit to procreate. This came as a result of the growing influence of the eugenics movement that began in the early 20th century. Eugenic practices in the United States functioned under the premise that minority groups, such as people of color and the mentally ill, had inherent hereditary traits associated with criminality, feeblemindedness, and sexual deviance, and so more likely to reproduce dangerous and uncivilized communities. Eugenicists looked to a future that shaped American genes through sterilization. At the same time, the financial incentives to lower welfare costs across the board motivated the United States government to approve the sterilizations of minority groups.

Throughout the 20th century, approximately 70,000 people were forcibly sterilized. Numerous cases exposed how healthcare workers threatened to withhold welfare benefits or medical care unless patients agreed to permanent sterilization. Patients were often unaware that the operation was irreversible and/or were compelled to sign consent forms in English that they could not understand. In fact, it wasn’t until the Nazis embraced and applied American eugenics that public opinion shifted in the United States. And yet, the dehumanizing attacks on the reproductive autonomy of marginalized people has continued without failure. The effects are unforgivable.

From the 1930s to the 1970s, one-third of the female population in Puerto Rico were sterilized. In fact, sterilizations became so common in Puerto Rico that they were often casually referred to as ‘la operacion’ (the operation). La Operación, a documentary produced in 1982, sheds light on the dark history of family planning in Puerto Rico and its role in harming the island’s economic and political growth. A program founded in North Carolina in 1933 similarly had detrimental effects on the Black communities in the area. This program was designed to generate economic growth by reducing welfare. It was responsible for the permanent sterilizations of 7,600 people in North Carolina, 5,000 of them were black women. In 1965, the Indian Health Service, a branch off of the United States Public Health Service, created a program for family planning. Through this program, they were able to successfully sterilize an estimated 25% of the Native population. Controlling the population growth of Native communities meant dwindling their political power, and ultimately, their assertion, in numbers, over their land. These examples demonstrate the United States’ nation-wide pursuit to rob poor people of color of their reproductive autonomies using false or misleading pretenses. The pseudoscientific justifications explained away the economic motivations to limit government spending on welfare in all three examples.

The anti-immigrant rhetoric that permeates society today has roots in the same historical efforts to eliminate ‘undesirables’ from the United States. Constant is the fear-mongering among conservative Americans that immigrants will give birth in the United States, gain citizenship through their children, and drain the welfare system. The pseudoscientific validation used in the 20th century by the United States government to dispose of and control immigrants is another avenue for explaining the anti-immigrant rhetoric we see perpetuated today. The violations we are seeing at ICDC are direct examples of the aggressive efforts to rhetorically and scientifically excuse the discrimination against and/or the removal of immigrant communities from the United States. Though it is no surprise that these methods of control have reached detention centers like ICDC, it is important to grapple with the particular way that violations against incarcerated people are excused and validated so that we can better eradicate the perpetuation of those methods today.

The ideology used for controlling people in the carceral system today, be they detention centers or prisons, is similar to that of slavery. Slaves, much like incarcerated people, were made to be regarded as “subhuman” so that they could be treated as property. When slavery was abolished, and the 13th amendment was created, the law stipulated that slavery was eradicated “except as a punishment for a crime.” This indicates how our current carceral system was founded on white southern buisnessmen’s efforts to keep slavery going. Asserting control over marginalized people under the premise that they are “undesirable” or “subhuman” constructs and legitimizes a system of exploitation and abuse. The dehumanizing practices that take place in prisons happen because the prison has constructed the “undesirable” criminal, using the rhetorical and historical power of the term to justify all actions against the incarcerated person. The restricting of people’s access to abortion and adequate pregnancy care in prison, the shackling of people in childbirth, and the forced hysterectomies are all examples of how this ideology transpires.

In 2014, a report by the California State Auditor revealed that roughly 150 people were illegally subjected to sterilization in California prisons between 2005 and 2013. The findings divulged that nurses and doctors falsified consent forms and pressured or rushed patients into agreeing to the procedure. Then-Senator Hannah Beth Jackson stated: “the problem [with prisons] is far more systemic… the prison environment is an environment where consent simply cannot be obtained in a responsible, reliable manner for these procedures.” By recognizing that the problem is systemic, Senator Jackson argues a very important point; the prison system itself is inherently abusive.

The United States’ punitive carceral system, which encompasses detention centers and prisons alike, has caused irreparable harm. The development of the prison industrial complex, a term used to show the growing partnership between the government and vested private interest, has exploited and abused millions of people. We will continue to see the far-reaching impacts of caging people for decades to come. The call for abolition has significantly increased in recent years as a result of education and public attention on the atrocities that take place in carceral settings. Prison abolition is a political vision that calls for the eradication of caging and policing people, encouraging new and profound alternatives to current crime and punishment models.  As is evidenced above, the current carceral system is incapable of changing because its roots lie with slavery, dehumanization, and abuse. A paradigm shift in support of restorative justice is sorely needed. Examples include fair and just reparations for all of the people who were forcibly sterilized by the United States government as part of a genocidal model of control from the start of the 20th century until now.

There is hope for us yet. Many organizations across the country are making great strides to bring attention to the abolition of detention centers, using grassroots methods that draw on the power of the people rather than appealing to the State. The #CommunitiesNotCages and #FreeThemAll campaigns call for the liberation of people from cages and the eradication of the prison industrial complex. Revealing the United States’ historical efforts to quell the reproductive freedom of ‘undesirable’ communities so as to further their dehumanizing and racist agenda is just a step on the way to defunding all systems of oppression against all people.