ICE’s Forced Hysterectomies Expose the Uneven Nature of Women’s Reproductive Rights in the US

Katey E. Mari //

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a champion for women’s reproductive rights throughout her time on the bench. In the wake of the death of Justice Ginsburg and the uncertain nature of her successor, many women fear for the fate of reproductive freedoms in the US. In light of recent events in Georgia, however, this fear represents a privilege in and of itself.  

Reproductive rights in the US have always been a topic of conversation amongst our lawmakers, but how are the reproductive rights of “less desirable” populations factored into their consideration? The actions by Dr. Amin at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia make the case that they are not. 

It is no secret that the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) tends to operate under far from ethical boundaries, as exemplified by the detainment centers at the Mexican border. Children are separated from parents, conditions are unsanitary, and death is a regular occurrence. Graphic pictures and disturbing headlines in the media have highlighted the regular mistreatment of immigrant populations, and such headlines only continue to persist.   

One of the most disturbing stories to come out during this already tumultuous and unprecedented year hit the news circuit in September of 2020, bringing to light a prime example of the mistreatment of immigrant populations in America. 

Whistleblower Dawn Wooten was working as a nurse in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia when she exposed the unusual number of hysterectomies being performed on detainees at the center. Wooten implicated Dr. Mahendra Amin, the primary physician at the center, as responsible, asserting that numerous forced hysterectomies were surgically performed on uninformed, and often unknowing, immigrant women. 

Bearing a badge of these horrific procedures, Amin sported the nickname the “uterus collector”.

Wooten exposed the fact that the many women who underwent hysterectomy surgeries at the hands of Dr. Amin were either completely unaware of the treatment they were receiving or did not fully understand what procedure they were having. By proceeding without informed consent from these women, Amin violated a basic human right, and the women’s autonomy to choose what happens to their own bodies was disregarded. It is no question that Amin preyed on language, educational, and cultural barriers in order to push forward an inherently discriminatory agenda. 

Despite the shocking nature of these events, the actions by Amin and the Irwin County Detention Center are an example of the longstanding, highly precedented system in the US by which the bodies of non-white women from marginalized populations are devalued and objectified in order to serve the sociopolitical agenda of the larger system at play. 

Immigrants have long been seen to challenge the notion of the “ideal American citizen” (Bruinius, 2007). Forced hysterectomies on immigrant populations under the “protection” of ICE only reinforces the ideology that immigrants are unworthy to reproduce because it would muddy the idealized white-centric society that is prioritized in the US. 

Upholding eugenic and racist ideologies, forced sterilizations of marginalized populations and medical experimentation is nothing new in our country. By definition, eugenics strives to mediate the reproductive capabilities of particular populations in order to increase the likelihood that “desirable” characteristics will be passed on to future generations. Typically these practices were, and still are, used for the purposes of unnaturally selecting for the persistence of primarily white European characteristics by populations striving for racial purity. To name a few examples of these practices throughout US history: unmedicated, inhumane medical experiments were practiced on slaves (Washington, 2006); the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment intentionally infected thousands of black Americans with syphilis while withholding necessary treatments (Thomas and Quinn, 1991); and forced abortions and sterilizations were practiced on Native American women in the 1970s (Rutecki, 2011). 

The obvious prioritization of the reproductive rights of white bodies works to reinforce the systemic oppression of marginalized populations in our country. Any non-consensual action upon a woman implies that her body is an object by which there is no ascribed personhood or agency. This plays into the longstanding precedent that the bodies of immigrants are inherently less valuable than their white counterparts’ and are seen as property of the larger white system. Thus, the eugenics-based practice of forced sterilizations works to show ownership over the bodies of such vulnerable populations.

The events at the Irwin County Detention Center bring to light that, as a country, we have not moved beyond the extremely harmful and politically motivated medical mistreatment of non-white people. Instances such as these further reinforce the justified feelings of mistrust of government and medical professionals often held by minority groups in the US. 

The forced hysterectomies at the hands of Dr. Amin at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia illustrate that basic human rights, like the right to reproductive freedoms, are not unilateral. It is obvious that reproductive rights in our country are differentially protective, prioritizing the health and well-being only of those populations through which the overarching white-centric ideological system is upheld. Thus, when assessing the fear and uncertainty brought about by who will fill the shoes of the late great Justice Ginsburg, we must first consider how it is a privilege to have these rights in the first place.

Works Cited

Bruinius, Harry. Better for all the world: The secret history of forced sterilization and America’s quest for racial purity. Vintage, 2007.

Patel, Priti. “Forced sterilization of women as discrimination.” Public health reviews 38.1 (2017): 1-12.

Rutecki, Gregory W. “Forced Sterilization of Native Americans: Later Twentieth Century Physician Cooperation with National Eugenic Policies?.” Ethics & Medicine 27.1 (2011): 33.

Thomas, Stephen B., and Sandra Crouse Quinn. “The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, 1932 to 1972: implications for HIV education and AIDS risk education programs in the black community.” American journal of public health 81.11 (1991): 1498-1505.

Washington, Harriet A. Medical apartheid: The dark history of medical experimentation on Black Americans from colonial times to the present. Doubleday Books, 2006.

Image Source: https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/16/us/ice-hysterectomy-forced-sterilization-history/index.html

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