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The American Legacy of Forced Sterilization

Updated: Oct 15, 2020

Earlier in September, a shocking revelation of mass hysterectomies occurring in ICE detention facilities became public. The Department of Homeland Security inspector general received a formal complaint from a nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia revealing that medically unnecessary hysterectomies were being performed by the in-house physician by the name of Dr.Mahendra Amin. The hysterectomies occurred under a general lack of knowledge, communication, and transparency. The trust these women had in not only ICE, but the state as a whole, relied on the basic principles of upholding human rights. Unfortunately, this is something the United States has consistently shown a proclivity to abuse. An indictment on American history reveals a disturbing trend of forced sterilizations. Contextualizing these latest horrific events in a long legacy of human rights violations performed by the state against some of the most vulnerable populations is critical. 

One of the most egregious forms of state violence against Black women took shape in forced sterilizations. What is known now as the “Mississippi appendectomies”, massive hysterectomies were performed on unwilling Black women often under coerced conditions and at the threat of losing benefits offered by the state. Others were covertly sterilized during routine operations like appendicitis and even during cesarean sections. This practice of racially charged steralizations amounts to nothing less than egregious human rights abuses, abuses that would later inspire those performed by Nazi Germany. 

In US-occupied Puerto Rico, nearly 1/3rd of women endured forced hysterectomies administered by the state and its privately run extensions in a  twisted plan which aimed yet failed to curb “undesirable” social ills like poverty and overproduction. The US Indian Health Services (IHS) is guilty of performing thousands of forced hysterectomies on indigenous women in the 60’s and 70’s, causing massive amounts of trauma. These violations can only be understood within a context of colonial violence committed by the United States against its occupied subjects. 

From the years of 1907-1939, more than 30,000 incarcerated people in the United States were sterilized against their will and without consent- almost half of them occurring in the state of California. The Virginia Sterilization Act of 1924 legally codified the sterilization of “unfit” populations in state custody, resulting in over 70,000 steralizations in the state between the legislation’s initial passing till 1979. Legal pushback to this bill reached the Supreme Court, which unshockingly defended the authority of the state to rob women of their organs. Mentally ill women, differently  abled women, biwoc, and the poor were disproportionately impacted. This legal precedent endured as decades of sterilizations followed. In California, prisons authorized the sterilization of  thousands of women, specifically low-income women of color. 

The rationale of targeting society’s most vulnerable populations for forced sterilization can only be explained through the prevailing sentiments of the time: racism, classism, Western chauvinism, sexism, ableism, and support for reactionary state violence. Black, Latinx, Indigenous, differently abled women, etc. were all deemed inferior and subhuman- thus ridding them of reproducing capacity was considered a rational and even benevolent thing to do. This creates the dangerous precedent for ethnic cleansing and genocide. As we take lessons from history and recognize trends of violence, we must do everything we can to fight back before these ends are reached. This means abolishing ICE, dismantling the police state, and the ultimate destruction of the American Empire.

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