A recent whistleblower complaint alleged immigrant detainees underwent hysterectomies, a kind of sterilization where the uterus is removed, without consent while in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody at a private detention center in Georgia. Dawn Wooten, a nurse at the facility, filed the complaint which also addressed fabricated detainee medical records and deplorable COVID-19 procedures. ICE’s abhorrent misconduct is evidence the eugenics movement is still brewing in the United States.
Eugenics disguises itself as a mission of desirability, but in reality it dehumanizes vast swaths of the population. The term eugenics, coined by British scientist Francis Galton, is a theory stating if only the “fittest” people reproduced, the undesirable traits of the 19th century would vanish.
America’s program, headed by eugenicists such as former Indiana University President David Starr Jordan, emboldened fascist regimes abroad. Albeit atrocious, the U.S. would be hypocritical to denounce modern genocidal campaigns, such as China’s mass sterilization of Uyghurs, until it is willing to reprimand its own propagators.
The beginnings of the American eugenics movement can be traced back to Indiana.
Gov. James Franklin Hanly signed the Indiana Sterilization Law in 1907, the first of its kind in the world. Individuals criminalized under the law were considered “idiots, imbeciles and rapists.” The law led to the unwarranted sterilization of more than 2,300 people in our state. The “Indiana Plan” was a model for the nation, encouraging 30 more states to enact sterilization laws.
The history of eugenics in Indiana cannot be discussed without former IU President David Starr Jordan. Jordan was a pioneer of eugenics, publishing a novel regarding the “decay of races” and “the survival of the unfit.”
It is not of mere coincidence Indiana became the first state to pass sterilization legislation. Jordan moved to Indiana in 1906 and became the head of the first U.S. eugenics organization. Jordan, a man idolized and commemorated by IU and Bloomington in the names of buildings and streets, devoted his life to promoting a racist theory.
Jordan focused on the propagation of the Anglo-Saxon race and the diminishment of racial mixing. Through blatant racism disguised as pacifism, Jordan wrote of the decimation of the Anglo-Saxon race by war “in which the best are sent to be killed” and, while referring to Indigenous Filipinos under U.S. imperial control, the inability of “monkeys” to execute self-governance.
Not long after, the American eugenics movement clawed its way into the international arena. The government's actions then frighteningly mirror ICE's sterilizations today.
A hunger for natural resources and cheap labor drove the U.S. toward Latin America and the Caribbean in the 20th century. U.S. imperial strategy relied on maintaining social stability in its territories. Accordingly, the U.S. pursued means of demographic control to prevent overpopulation, which it saw as threatening the supply of resources.
Facing pressure from American eugenicists, Puerto Rico’s insular governor signed Law 116 in 1937, legalizing birth control practices and sterilization. Until 1946, Puerto Rico experienced unyielding colonial rule where the U.S. president appointed the governor.
By the 1970s, the U.S. government supported and subsidized the creation of 160 private clinics throughout Puerto Rico with the primary intention of performing sterilizations. Clarence Gamble, doctor and heir of Procter and Gamble, heavily involved himself in the Puerto Rican sterilization movement. He flew doctors to New York to teach them sterilization techniques and staffed clinics in Puerto Rico with his fieldworkers to recruit women for procedures.
Gamble set the stage for Gregory Pincus’ oral contraceptive trials which ultimately exploited poor, illiterate Puerto Rican women who feared both pregnancy and sterilization. The pills caused significant side effects due to their high potency. However, Pincus wrote off any woman who stepped forward and reported side effects as unreliable.
The sterilization campaign was catastrophic. As of 1973, 35% of women in Puerto Rico were sterilized compared to 16.4% in 1953. American drug companies developed an FDA-approved oral contraceptive at the cost of Puerto Rican women who were unaware of the drugs’ experimental status and were uninformed of the safety risks.
Gamble funded projects in other countries, most notably Korea, Chile and Italy, and American eugenicists provided the intellectual outline for a “master race” studied closely by Adolf Hitler. Before Hitler began his own sterilization campaign targeting Europeans with disabilities, he spoke highly of American eugenics.
“I have studied with great interest the laws of several American states concerning prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny would, in all probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial stock,” he said in the 1930s.
At home, at least 70,000 Americans with disabilities and upwards of 25% of Indigenous women ages 15 to 44 were sterilized by the 1970s. The cruel practice persists. One hundred and fifty women were illegally sterilized in California prisons between 2006 and 2010. The recent ICE whistleblower complaint demonstrates cases of forced sterilization are concealed and underreported.
While the reports of ICE sterilizing women in detention are new, those reports are only the latest in a series of offenses by which the U.S. government attempts to control the bodies and detract from the overall health of immigrants.
So far in 2020, the death rate for immigrants in ICE detention has doubled what it was in 2019, with COVID-19 making a dire situation worse. Every step in the process of an ICE detention or deportation is now potentially deadly.
Migrants facing detention or deportation often move through Customs and Border Patrol’s hieleras, or “ice boxes,” first. These rooms are kept cold to keep migrants sickly and uncomfortable. Low temperatures deactivate the immune system and are associated with illness. As they progress through detention processes, ICE detainees are routinely denied medical care.
Migrant women’s forced hysterectomies are part of a bigger story about how the U.S. government controls the bodies of people it considers to be part of a surplus population. Who gets to live? Who dies? Who is able to reproduce?
With the recent passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, women across the country are concerned with the court striking down Roe v. Wade. While this apprehension is undeniably warranted, one must not ignore America’s inhumane exploitation of Black and Brown women who historically were not afforded the same reproductive rights as white women and who suffered in the name of women’s healthcare.
Campaigns targeting individuals with disabilities, the incarcerated and members of the Latinx, Indigenous and Black communities have demonstrated American administrations and companies alike have no qualms with using forced sterilization techniques on their own citizens.
Nevertheless, citizenship status is not an indicator of one’s worthiness of humane treatment. As long as ICE exists, so will the routine dehumanization of immigrants. Failure to swiftly abolish ICE allows fascist countries around the world to continually seek justification through American practices.
The world’s “guarantor of democracy” does not mind human rights abuses insofar as it is able to call the shots.
Katelyn Balakir (she/her) is a junior studying policy analysis and world political systems. She is a member of Indiana Model United Nations.
Bradi Heaberlin (they/them) is a second-year Ph.D. student studying geography and informatics. They are also a member of Young Democratic Socialists of America Bloomington and the Graduate Workers Coalition.
Russ Hensley (he/him) is a sophomore studying mathematics, political science and international law. He is a curator for TEDxIndianaUniversity, a member of IU Student Government and a member of the Hutton Honors College.