Immigrant Women, Forced Sterilization | Same Song?

A nurse at a private immigration detention center in Georgia blew the whistle on something that sounds right out of a nightmare. Whistleblower Dawn Wooten claims the Irwin County Detention Center she worked at performed an unethical number of hysterectomies on immigrant women in custody. Her claims confirm accounts by detained immigrants at the facility who report high rates of hysterectomies. Several immigrant women approached Project South with their concerns, with one woman telling Project South Irwin sends women to see one particular gynecologist outside the facility. They say women no longer trust that doctor because of his reputation as a sterilizer.

“We’ve questioned among ourselves like, goodness, he’s taking everybody’s stuff out,” Wooten claimed. … That’s his specialty, he’s the uterus collector. I know that’s ugly … is he collecting these things or something? … Everybody he sees, he’s taking all their uteruses out or he’s taken their tubes out. What in the world.”

Wooten recounted how the doctor removed the wrong ovary in one patient suffering ovarian cysts, and then had to go back and remove the second one. This left the woman with a total hysterectomy.

“Everybody he sees has a hysterectomy—just about everybody,” Wooten said.

LaSalle Corrections operates the detention center and allegedly oversaw a facility that targeted detainees with heavy menstrual cycles and abdominal pain with hysterectomies. But Wooten argued in the complaint, “[E]verybody’s uterus cannot be that bad.”

Immigrant rights activists told The Lighthouse they are outraged the immigration system under President Trump has decayed to a standard that could potentially allow this kind of abuse.

“Time and time again, I am horrified at the blatant abuse of human rights in modern day America,” said Tahmina Watson, an immigration attorney at Watson Immigration Law, in Seattle. “These allegations expose the inhumane nature of our immigration detention system, which has long needed oversight and reform.”

The Personal is Political – Gender, Race, and Class
credit, Oakland Museum of California

Project South, Georgia Detention Watch, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, and South Georgia Immigrant Support Network filed an official complaint against the detention center with the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security. The complaint covers numerous health violations at the facility, including its nearly nonexistent COVID-19 prevention policy. The same company, while eager to inflict sterilization procedures upon women, was stingy with COVID-19 tests, Wooten said. She said she directly witnessed facility leaders refusing to administer tests for the deadly coronavirus.

The report, if true, would not be the first time that people in power wielded the right of reproduction over the powerless in the United States. In fact, the U.S. shares a eugenics history with Nazi Germany in the years leading up to World War II and even continued the practice up into the modern day.

Charles Darwin’s half-cousin Francis Galton devised the term “eugenics” as a pop-culture way to root out low-intelligence and other characteristics deemed unlikeable. Naturally, the idea took off among white people, and soon both the U.S. and Germany were leading the race to make humans a homogenous, cookie-cutter wave of sameness. “Scientific American” praised the effort at the time, and the American Museum of Natural History hosted conferences on the practice, according to the New Yorker. Theodore Roosevelt, inventor Alexander Graham Bell and millionaire John D. Rockefeller, Jr., all supported eugenics.

With popular opinion on their side, states like Virginia passed laws permitting eugenic sterilization in the early 20th century, and allowed doctors to institutionalize “undesirables,” sterilize them and then release them back into their communities. Coerced sterilization is still possible today, with critics claiming California prisons authorized the sterilization of nearly 150 female inmates between 2006 and 2010, and that the state paid doctors $147,460 to perform tubal ligations that former inmates say they didn’t want.

Southern states, of course, embraced the tactic throughout the last century and allowed medical students to practice hysterectomies upon unknowing Black women. The practice was so widespread it came to be known as “Mississippi appendectomies.” North Carolina’s own eugenics program targeted unwitting girls as young as 9 years old.

The nation was no less merciful to its Native American population, with U.S. doctors sterilizing Native Americans all the way up until the 1980s. Many of these procedures took the guise of clandestine appendectomies. Allegedly, up to 25-50 percent of Native American women were sterilized between 1970 and 1976 alone.

The allegations against ICDC come as no surprise to Project South Staff Attorney Priyanka Bhatt. Bhatt said an investigation into the facility is long overdue.

“For years, advocates in Georgia have raised red flags about the human rights violations occurring inside the Irwin County Detention Center. Ms. Wooten’s whistleblowing disclosures confirm what detained immigrants have been reporting for years: gross disregard for health and safety standards, lack of medical care, and unsanitary living conditions at Irwin.”

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