Forced Sterilization Is Not a Relic of the Past

This article features Government Accountability Project’s whistleblower client, Dawn Wooten, and was originally published here.

The words “forced sterilization” bring to mind shameful stories from the American past.

The eugenics movement of the early 20th century promoted the notion that the way to improve the human race was to ensure that “undesirables” would not have children. Untold numbers of poor people, immigrants, and Black women were subjected to unwanted medical procedures that made them sterile. Women who were too interested in sex were sometimes in this category as well.

The Supreme Court made the procedure legal in 1927. In the case of one indigent Virginia girl, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes decreed, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

But forced sterilization is not simply an artifact of the past. Shocking allegations surfaced last year when Dawn Wooten, a nurse who worked at an ICE immigrant detainment center in Georgia, filed a whistleblower complaint, working with the human rights group Project South.

The complaint charged that women in the facility had “been sterilized en masse without proper consent or medical necessity. Numerous women described being coerced into surgery and confused as to why the procedure was performed. Some described being yelled at by medical staff when they resisted the procedure. Many explained that they felt as if ICE was ‘experimenting with [their] bodies.’”

Priyanka Bhatt, a staff attorney at Project South, told NPR,

“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.”

Congressional Democrats called for investigatios, with House speaker Nancy Pelosi saying, “If true, the appalling conditions described in the whistleblower complaint — including allegations of mass hysterectomies being performed on vulnerable immigrant women — are a staggering abuse of human rights,” said Pelosi. “This profoundly disturbing situation recalls some of the darkest moments of our nation’s history, from the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks, to the horror of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, to the forced sterilizations of Black women that Fannie Lou Hamer and so many others underwent and fought.”

Sadly, Georgia is not alone.

Earlier in the 20th century, California had led the way in eugenics. The state sterilized more than 20,000 people, says Paul Lombardo, a law professor at Georgia State University and an expert on the eugenics movement. He says sterilization in the state was so far advanced that that it inspired similar practices in Nazi Germany.

“The promise of eugenics at the very earliest is: ‘We could do away with all the state institutions — prisons, hospitals, asylums, orphanages,” Lombardo said. People who were in them just wouldn’t be born after a while if you sterilized all of their parents.”

California lawmakers banned forced sterilizations in 1979. Since 1994, elective sterilizations have required approval from top medical officials in Sacramento on a case-by-case basis. Research revealed that “contract doctors were reimbursed for performing tubal ligations on inmates,” however the information was incomplete and proved difficult to obtain.

Corey Johnson, a reporter for the Guardian, received “a tip that sterilizations may have occurred in California’s women’s prisons as recently as 2010.” Johnson cut through the red tape and published a thorough report of tubal ligation procedures and costs.” Here are the highlights:

“Doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sterilized nearly 150 female inmates from 2006 to 2010 without required state approvals — and there were perhaps 100 more dating back to the late 1990s.

“Former inmates and prisoner advocates reported that prison medical staff pressured the women into agreeing to surgery, especially those expected to be repeat offenders. From 1997 to 2010, the state paid doctors $147,460 to perform tubal ligations, according to a database of contracted medical services for state prisoners.

“After a long campaign by advocates, progress has been made. “California is poised to approve reparations of up to $25,000 to people who decades ago were among the thousands of residents — some as young as 13 — sterilized by the state because officials deemed them unfit to have children.”

California joins Virginia and North Carolina, in compensating victims of eugenics laws. “No figure would be enough to compensate something as terrible as taking away a person’s decision to start a family,” said Susy Chávez, communications director for California Latinas for Reproductive Justice “But we are happy to at least know that the state is admitting its guilt and that it is doing something to repair it and not continue to hide a story that keeps repeating itself.”

In reaction to the Georgia reports, the Biden administration said in May that it was closing down the detention center in Georgia, which is now under federal investigation for alleged abuse of detained immigrants.

But, as the Los Angeles Times points out, within days of taking office, “Biden ordered the Justice Department not to renew contracts with private prison companies — but notably left out the Homeland Security Department, which oversees immigration detention. Of hundreds of immigration detention facilities in the United States, private prison companies run the vast majority, holding more than 80% of detained immigrants.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who led calls for investigations into the whistleblower’s allegations and, ultimately, a House resolution condemning the forced medical procedures at Irwin, said she will be keeping pressure on Biden to make good on his campaign promise.

“I am glad to see the facility closing, but I will not stop fighting for full accountability for what happened and for real justice for all of the women impacted,” she said. “It is long overdue that we end the use of private, for-profit facilities throughout this country, repeal mandatory detention, and promote community-based alternatives.”

The rise of private prisons is worrying. Since 2000, the use of such prisons increased 77%, and the number of people in private federal custody — which includes prisons, halfway houses and home confinement — totaled 27,409 in 2019.

The New York Times reports that sterilization abuses have occurred in different settings over time, one fact remains constant: “People with historically marginalized identities—disabled, female, Latina, Black, and/or LGBTQI+—have been overwhelmingly targeted.

That abuse may well increase in private prisons remain in charge of large numbers of immigrants.

There is no little irony in the fact that historical researchers have discovered that there is no evidence the Virginia girl at the center of the 1927 Supreme Court case was mentally disabled.

The “Three generations of imbeciles are enough” quote is a historically famous one, with a literary flair. It just didn’t have anything to do with the case justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was deciding.