Natalia Molina was shocked when she heard a whistleblower’s allegations about hysterectomies in ICE custody. But also, she wasn’t.
Molina has written about the history of forced sterilization. The professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California knows there’s a shameful legacy of US officials ordering operations on people without their consent – often disproportionately targeting people of color – with laws driven by racism and cloaked in terms about mental health and fitness.
So when new allegations emerged about conditions in ICE custody, she says, it wasn’t hard to make a connection.
“The story gained so much traction immediately with people, because there’s such a long history affecting many different racial and ethnic groups, across many institutions – mental health hospitals, public hospitals, prisons,” she says.
In a complaint filed with the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, a nurse who worked at Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia reported concerns about a high rate of hysterectomies and alleged medical neglect there. Lawmakers are calling for an investigation and ICE is urging skepticism of what it calls “anonymous, unproven allegations.”
As details emerge, Molina and other scholars say they see this week’s allegations as the latest chapter in a long and troubling history.
The history of forced sterilization in the US dates back more than a century
“This could be seen as a recent episode in a much longer trajectory of sterilization abuse and reproductive injustice,” says Alexandra Minna Stern, a professor and associate dean at the University of Michigan.
Indiana passed the world’s first eugenics sterilization law in 1907. And from there, Stern says, 31 other US states followed suit.
“Under those laws, about 60,000 people were sterilized in procedures that we would qualify today as being compulsory, forced, involuntary, and under the justifications that the people who were being sterilized were unfit to reproduce,” she says.
The laws, which led to officials ordering sterilizations of people they deemed “feeble-minded” or “mentally defective,” later became models for Nazi Germany.
Stern directs the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab, a project that’s dedicated to reconstructing stories behind the sterilizations that occurred across the US.
“Women and people of color increasingly became the target, as eugenics amplified sexism and racism,” Stern wrote in a recent article for The Conversation detailing the lab’s research.
Patterns varied from state to state, Stern says. In California, people of Mexican descent were disproportionately sterilized. And in North Carolina, Black women were disproportionately targeted.
Most of the state laws were repealed by the 1970s. But their history is something scholars are still working to unravel and states are still reckoning with.
Lawmakers are invoking this history as they call for an investigation
As word spread about the whistleblower’s accusations this week, Democratic lawmakers pointed to this history as they called for an investigation.
“This profoundly disturbing situation recalls some of the darkest moments of our nation’s history,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.
Alan Kraut, an immigration historian and professor at American University, says he sees parallels with the past in the recent accusations. But just because something happened historically, he says, doesn’t mean it’s happening now.
“Without evidence I really hesitate to say, ‘Yeah, they’re probably doing sterilizations just the way they used to do in the 1920s.’ I’m not willing to say that. … That’s really a heavy-duty accusation,” he says. “And I think we should all be asking, is there any evidence of this? Not just rumor, not just he said-she said, but an investigation. There needs to be an investigation of who’s been mistreated, how they’ve been mistreated, and whether or not there’s anything to this, because it is extremely, extremely serious.”
There have been more recent sterilizations, too
When it comes to sterilization, Molina – who teaches at the University of Southern California’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences – says California’s history has been particularly troubling.
“We know that there were forced sterilizations at LA County hospital. … We know that in the California prison system there were also issues of forced sterilization,” she says. “We also know that there’s been sort of a reckoning with this past. LA County has apologized for forced sterilizations.”
Sterilizations in the 1970s at the county hospital in Los Angeles spurred protests and a lawsuit that later became the subject of a documentary, “No Más Bebés.”
On Twitter, Maybell Romero, an associate professor of law at Northern Illinois University, said to her the connections between that case and this week’s allegations are clear.
“In that case, a whistleblower much like today came forward with evidence that Latinas were being tricked, coerced, and forced into sterilization,” she wrote. “Much like today’s case…the women often had little to no grasp of English, leaving them vulnerable to coercion.”
This history was already on scholars’ minds before the recent allegations came up
Molina says the coronavirus pandemic already had a lot of scholars thinking about this history recently, even before the whistleblower’s complaint.
“Many of us have been thinking about this history recently as we start thinking about who’s going to get the (Covid-19) vaccine,” she says, “and are communities of color going to be trusting the government?”
One thing that keeps coming up, Molina says, is the Tuskegee syphilis study, in which hundreds of Black men with syphilis were never told their diagnosis or that they weren’t being treated for the deadly disease.
“That is another way in which we see the government abusing medical power, medical ethics, and seeing certain populations as more disposable,” Molina says.
Then-President Bill Clinton apologized for the study – years after it had ended – in 1997 at an emotional ceremony for survivors and their family members.
“What was done cannot be undone, but we can end the silence,” he said. “We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye, and finally say, on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful and I am sorry.”
Awareness about forced sterilization has grown, but a lot of people still don’t know about it
Some states in recent years have issued apologies for forced sterilizations, and awareness about the practice in the US has grown. But Stern says the history still isn’t taught in many schools or as widely known as it should be.
“One reason is that many of these sterilizations took place in institutions that again had no accountability. … All of this was happening behind closed doors. People weren’t necessarily aware of it,” she says. “People who were subjects to this sterilization, many of the survivors still to this day find it so painful and hard to talk about that experience, it’s so marked with shame and secrecy for them, that it’s not like they’re writing long confessionals about it. But some have.”
Famed civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer spoke out about her sterilization, Stern says, drawing attention to the practice. Hamer underwent a hysterectomy without her consent in 1961 while undergoing a minor surgery to remove a tumor.
“She was subjected to what she called the ‘Mississippi appendectomy,’” Stern says, “where young Black women were taken into local clinics and sterilized. … That was really a motivating factor to her in her activism.”
Stern says learning – and sharing – this history is important.
“It’s important to know that America was profoundly shaped by the Eugenics Movement. … The legacies continue to play out and the lessons have not been learned,” she says. “It’s an integral part of understanding the history of inequality in the United States, and how social ideas can be twisted to promote dehumanization.”