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Eugenics and Forced Sterilizations: The Harmful History of the U.S.

Several weeks ago, on September 14th, a whistleblower claim was made by a nurse at the ICE Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia. Dawn Wooten came forward with the allegation that Dr. Mahendra Amin is the physician behind mass forced hysterectomies on detained women.  

This claim is not only deeply unsettling, it appears to be a part of a larger, ongoing pattern of dehumanization and maltreatment of minority women and when I say ongoing… I mean historical. 

The unfortunate truth is that America has been forcibly sterilizing those deemed as “undesirable” for decades. Destructive eugenic policies were largely active in U.S. domestic policy throughout the 20th century. According to a PBS News report, up until the early 1980s, there were 32 states that had federally funded eugenics boards specifically tasked with ordering sterilizations of minority populations of women and some men. The groups most at risk were immigrants, indigenous people, people of color, those in poverty, unmarried mothers, and people with mental and physical disabilities. 

Eugenical Sterilization Map of the United States, 1935; from The Harry H. Laughlin Papers

United States Eugenics boards were also responsible for informing federal policy decisions on immigration and segregation. Undoubtedly, their ‘scientific’ insights were based upon their notions of prejudice and racial and ethnic preference. This is frankly a terrifying example of formal social control. Eugenics is rooted in racist principles and the fact that it was credited and sanctioned by the U.S. government for decades is yet another example of the systemic injustice and inequality that minority groups face. 

America’s race relations have been informed by eugenics theory since its inception. Even with the abolition of eugenics boards, the philosophies informed by such ideologies remain embedded in our federal policies on race and immigration. The recent forced hysterectomy allegations made against ICE detention centers exhibit exactly this. 

As Americans, we often like to believe we have progressed past the times of sanctioned prejudice, however, the majority of our prejudicial actions remain shrouded by dismissive patriotism in our historical curriculums. I would argue this censoring of harmful historical practices is also a method of formal social control. We are taught that this is a country of hard work and greatness yet they fail to mention it is only select racial groups that have access to this meritocracy. Many of those aware of this systemic barrier simply refuse to admit it — why would they acknowledge a skewed system that they benefit from?

How can we claim to be the world's melting pot while our entire history demonizes Black and Brown people? If we are unable to reap an economical gain from them, they are an unsightly danger to our country. 

Anyone paying attention recognizes forced sterilization of immigrants as morally and ethically wrong, so how does this happen?

This historical amnesia present in American society is exactly what allows practices such as mass hysterectomies of immigrant women to take place. It becomes easy to overlook injustice when you are not the one at risk.

But allow me to ask this: Why are these women deemed so dangerously deviant by our government that even their reproductive rights are viewed as a threat?  Is it their perceived deviance that somehow justifies this malpractice in the eyes of government authority?

This may be directly a women's issue, but the importance of intersectional feminism has never been clearer. It should come as no surprise that minority women have disproportionately suffered injustice for a long time.

What will it take for women to have a say in their own physical existence and anatomy? This should not be such a hot button issue — women are entitled to their reproductive rights and frankly, the involuntary regulation of who can and will reproduce is despicable.

Demetria Smith, B.A. Candidate in Sociology, The George Washington University

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