Editorial: On the History of Genocide through Forced Sterilization in the US

By Ian Conte, Copy Editor

Women held in a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Georgia are being coerced into hysterectomies without their consent. In a whistleblower complaint filed on Sept. 14, women describe being routinely sent outside the detention center to receive full or partial hysterectomies without a complete explanation of the procedures being performed on them and much less their permission. 

The gynecologist performing the hysterectomies has been nicknamed “the uterus collector” because nearly everyone he sees has had their uterus removed. Women in the facility have had to establish a buddy system where an English-speaking detainee will accompany women to the doctor so they get the care they’re actually seeking. According to prominent Atlanta civil rights lawyer R. Andrew Free, a pattern is emerging whereby women who complain about the surgeries are “shunted into the facility’s mental health system.”

One immigrant held in the detention center told advocates the facility is “like an experimental concentration camp.”

The news sounds like it was ripped straight from a 1940’s article detailing the horrors of Nazi concentration camps in Germany. But for the US, this is nothing new: this country has a long and detailed history of performing forced sterilizations on its most vulnerable, and these procedures still continue behind its closed doors.

Since the late 19th century “social undesirables,” individuals such as non-whites, the poor, people with disabilities, and women who were deemed “promiscuous” have been targeted by compulsory sterilization laws in the US. These people were deemed unfit to reproduce because of eugenics, the pseudoscientific belief that certain people are tainted by undesirable traits that should be systematically bred out of future generations.

The belief that only healthy, white, privileged offspring were welcome in the US led to federally funded sterilization programs in 32 states. Many states formed eugenics boards where committee members reviewed individual cases and ordered sterilizations.

Institutions practicing eugenics in the State of California were particularly ruthless. According to Associate Professor of Sociology Lutz Kaelber of the University of Vermont, a total of 20,108 people were sterilized in Calif. between 1909 and 1964, making that the largest number in the US. During this period, the total individuals sterilized in Calif. was disproportionately made up of Mexican, Mexican-American, and Chicana women.

California’s ruthlessly efficient sterilization programs even inspired Nazi Chancellor Adolf Hitler, who often cited the state as a model for policies that propelled the holocaust.

During the 1940s, justifications for forced sterilization shifted slightly to argue that the procedure would end poverty and save the government welfare money. However, the targets remained the same.

The idea of controlling poverty through sterilization led to the sterilization of approximately one third of Puerto Rico’s female population between the 1930s and 1970s. At the time, this was the highest rate of sterilization in the world, according to Panoramas.

During the 1960s and 1970s, up to 50% of Native American women were sterilized by the US government, according to the General Accounting Office. Doctors from the US Indian Health Service (IHS) believed that Native Americans weren’t intelligent enough to use birth control, and instead coerced them into signing medical consent forms for sterilization as the government-preferred method of contraception.

Southern states employed sterilization to control the population of African Americans. Many teaching hospitals in the south allowed medical students to practice by performing hysterectomies on unknowing women of color, who went in for routine procedures. These hysterectomies became known as “Mississippi Appendectomies.”

However, a change of pace occurred by the end of the 1970s. The 1978 Federal Sterilization Regulations created by the United States Department of Health served to prevent the eugenics that resulted in the mass sterilizations taking place in the US. They prohibited a variety of practices used to coerce people into sterilization. 

Unfortunately, several studies have indicated that the regulations are too dense and complex, and high levels of misinformation still exists among individuals that have undergone sterilization procedures. Federal enforcement of the regulations is also inconsistent, and the prohibited abuses of patients still continue in underfunded hospitals, detention centers, and in communities of color.

Forced sterilization in the US is yet another example of the country’s foundation in white supremacy. The recent allegations made against ICE echo the past and highlight the US’s long-time systematic effort to establish a homogenous nation of privileged white people.

For information on your state’s involvement in forced sterilization, visit: [http://www.uvm.edu/%7Elkaelber/eugenics/]