Ghosts of the Not-So-Distant Past: Hysterectomies, Immigrant Detention, and American Eugenics
By Michael Guzy
Communications & Policy Fellow, Prevention at the Intersections
On September 14th, 2020, an Office of Inspector General Complaint published by Project South claimed that there were “high rates of hysterectomies done to immigrant women”[i] being performed without their “informed consent”[ii] at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC). Information later revealed this to be the work of one doctor, Dr Mahendra Amin, and that 57 women were affected.
During a year seemingly defined by cruelty—by the state, by the police, by institutional and systemic inequality—and the United States’ complicity with such cruelty historically, these claims seemed to be echoes of another dark area of the United States’ history: the deep, long, and unfortunately not-too-remote relationship between the United States and eugenics policies. This blog will briefly discuss the history of eugenics in the United States and link it up to the present-day, surveying the rhetoric and practices in the immigration system which have led up to this disgraceful situation.
Eugenics policies, inspired by a Darwinist conceptualization of genetic “cleanliness,” specifically targeted the poor and “mentally unfit” to be involuntarily sterilized throughout the 20th century in the United States. At its height, more than 30 states had some form of eugenics policy deployed against certain groups. These policies were partially[iii] the influence of Nazi Germany’s far more widespread programs of forced sterilization and euthanasia, which ultimately provided for some of the methods and justifications that allowed for the Holocaust to occur. Given the connections between race, class, and conceptions of “mental fitness,” it is unsurprising that minorities, specifically Mexican, African-American, and Native American women, were frequently the targets of sterilization campaigns in the United States, often coercively or without their fully-informed consent.
These hysterectomies, then, conjure up an uncomfortable history which involves eugenics, racism, and genocide. These points are especially concerning due to the consistent present-day rhetoric surrounding undocumented Latin-American women which labels them as “breeders,” “criminals,” and thus supposedly threats to “national security.”[iv] These labels already have various implications in regards to immigration policy, they are used often by the news media and the state to legitimize and justify both the widespread detention and criminalization of such women and the continuing efforts to increase surveillance and control over vulnerable minority populations. They also speak to more basic demographic fears within certain parts of the white population, of them “losing control” demographically to a non-white group and “chaos” and “crime” ensuing.
These sorts of labels can become a productive ground for racialized thinking, which easily can transform into more “practical” measures which include medical procedures that reduce fertility—eugenics. Unfortunately, this escalation from rhetoric to reality can find a very fruitful home in ICE detention centers.
The situation regarding the hysterectomies become amplified by problems present in many ICE facilities. These women are locked in detention centers with inadequate and confusing systems of legal counsel and accountability, have little recourse against these procedures, and –given the circumstances—can risk deportation at any time, as is occurring now with several women claiming that these procedures happened. When evidence and witnesses can just be deported away, it becomes only a matter of time that bad actors can leak through into the system and do what they want. Without appropriate measures protecting these women, and ICE facilities show time and again their deficiencies in that regard, it would not be surprising to see events like these hysterectomies—or worse— to continue to be found out into the near future.
To put these hysterectomies into a more specific context, as in within the ICDC, the majority of the Project South complaint against the ICDC, which has gone relatively under discussed due to the flurry of activity surrounding the hysterectomies, does not discuss the hysterectomies at all. Instead, the report mainly goes into detail about several claims regarding the gross and intentional disregard for CDC measures meant to ensure COVID-19 safety at the ICDC.[v]
This information should in itself be cause for alarm, as it should be a given that detention facility employees need to ensure the health and safety of their detainees, and when that—very basic—standard seems to not be in place, it all but ensures that worse things can and will happen at these facilities. This report, on top of the many problems already plaguing the immigrant detention system, suggest an institution, and a facility, at its breaking point, where any sort of virulent idea and practice can occur with little or no accountability. In a facility where all of the responsibility lies on the staff in charge, even the passive or unknowing allowance of such practices should be an indictment of their general attitudes towards those they are meant to guard.
These hysterectomies might not be “widespread,” they only occurred with one doctor and do not seem to be part of a wider institutional program, but when seen contextually within a broken immigration detention system, they become symptoms of a historical sickness within our country which considers many groups of people unfit to prosper within this country. We might not have explicit eugenics policies now, but we allow people to be deprived of a full life all the same.
Regardless of whatever new information comes out about the hysterectomies, the root takeaway of this report should be that we have an immigration detention system which fosters a general disrespect towards undocumented immigrants. If we are going to change this, we must talk about our system of detainment itself, and what can be done to ensure accountability and respect, instead of just jumping from one cruelty to another without any seeming change.
[i] See pages 18-20 of the complaint
[ii] See page 19 of the complaint
[iii] I say “partially” here because, though German and American eugenicists were close to one another and often influenced each other, Germany had its own independent history with eugenics which developed its own ideas, specifically in regards to Nordic and pro-Aryan supremacy which were not prevalent in American eugenics. For more information see Garland E. Allen’s review/critique of Edwin Black’s work on the subject: Allen, G. E. (2004). Was Nazi eugenics created in the US? EMBO Reports, 5(5), 451-452. doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.embor.7400158
[iv] Of course, this rhetoric is not limited to Trump, as oftentimes the media and other government officials have fed into this sort of discourse, and this tendency is not especially new. For a broader analysis of the connections between anti-immigrant discourse, national security, and how they relate to immigrant women’s bodies, see Lugo-Lugo, Carmen R. and Bloodsworth-Lugo, Mary K. (2014) "‘Anchor/Terror Babies’ and Latina Bodies: Immigration Rhetoric in the 21st Century and the Feminization of Terrorism," Journal of Interdisciplinary Feminist Thought: Vol. 8: Iss. 1, Article 1. Also see Huang, Priscilla. (2008) “Anchor Babies, Over-Breeders, and the Population Bomb: The Reemergence of Nativism and Population Control in Anti-Immigration Policies,” Harvard Law and Policy Review: Vol.2, 385-406. https://harvardlpr.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/20/2013/05/2.2_9_Huang.pdf
[v] This includes, but is not limited to, lack of medical supplies, lack of proper quarantining procedures, staff refusing to provide COVID testing, and the intentional mishandling of medical documentation—which includes the shredding and forging medical documents.
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