Speaking Out with Carrie N. Baker and Katie Fleischer: 21st century eugenics

  • In this Sept. 15 file photo, Dawn Wooten, left, a nurse at Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, speaks at a news conference in Atlanta protesting conditions at the immigration jail. An Associated Press review of medical records for four detained immigrant women at the detention center and interviews with lawyers have revealed growing allegations that a gynecologist performed surgeries that the women never sought or didn’t fully understand. AP

Published: 9/23/2020 5:07:10 PM

“The uterus collector” is what detained migrant women called the gynecologist working at the Irwin County Detention Center, a privately-run Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Ocilla, Georgia.

In a whistleblower complaint filed last week, a nurse named Dawn Wooten detailed reports of how this doctor performed hysterectomies on detained women without their knowledge or consent.

“Everybody he sees has a hysterectomy — just about everybody. He’s even taken out the wrong ovary on a young lady. She was supposed to get her left ovary removed because it had a cyst; he took out the right one. She was upset. She had to go back to take out the left and she wound up with a total hysterectomy.”

Over the last four years, the Trump administration has committed horrific human rights violations against migrants to the United States. ICE guards have torn nursing children from their mother’s arms and systematically sexually assaulted detainees. The director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Scott Lloyd, blocked abortion health care for migrant teenagers pregnant because of rape, and then after a court demanded that he stop, he continued to track girls’ menstrual periods.

“Just when you think it can’t get worse, it really does get worse,” says Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center (NILC).

“This administration and the president himself think they are above the law. They think of immigrants as animals, which creates the conditions for this kind of behavior to happen. At the end of the day, they see women’s bodies as either disposable or needing to be controlled,” says Hincapié.

The U.S. has a long history of racist reproductive coercion, tracing back to the “Father of Modern Gynecology,” Marion Sims (1813-1883), who developed surgical procedures by experimenting on enslaved women without anesthesia. Then in 1923, the Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell upheld a Virginia law allowing involuntary sterilization of the “unfit.” The case, which involved an impoverished 17-year-old girl who became pregnant after being raped, has never been overturned.

As a result of this ruling, states and the federal government coercively sterilized significant numbers of women and girls of color. By 1965, the U.S. government had sterilized one-third of Puerto Rican women. The Indian Health Services sterilized one quarter of Native American women by the 1970s. Black women and girls were sterilized at similarly shocking rates.

In the 1970s, women organized to oppose coercive sterilization. Some sued. In Relf v. Weinberger, two African American sisters aged 12 and 14 sued after they were surgically sterilized at a federally-funded clinic. In Madrigal v. Quilligan, 10 Mexican-American women in California sued because they were coercively sterilized after giving birth.

These actions raised awareness and resulted in federal standards requiring informed consent and waiting periods. But the abuse has continued. In 2010, the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed government-sanctioned coercive sterilizations in a California prison.

For generations, racism, xenophobia and misogyny have motivated forced sterilizations, but today money is also playing a significant role. Under the Trump administration, ICE detention centers are increasingly run by private corporations. Today, roughly 70% of immigration jails in the U.S. are run by private companies. The Irwin County Detention Center, for example, is owned by LaSalle Corrections. These private companies then outsource health care services to private providers, with little oversight or accountability.

“We’ve seen a very, very long, well-documented history of medical neglect and abuse that’s pervasive in ICE and border patrol facilities because of the profit motive underlying these companies,” says Hincapié.

To make money, the owners of these private prisons cut corners to keep operating costs low. Meanwhile, unscrupulous doctors can make money charging Medicaid for unnecessary medical procedures.

In fact, the doctor accused of being “the uterus collector” — Dr. Mahendra Amin — is not even certified by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology. He also has a history of alleged Medicaid fraud. In 2015, he and other doctors in Irwin County settled a lawsuit for $520,000 after a whistleblower alleged they were submitting false claims to Medicare and Medicaid.

The reproductive injustices occurring in ICE facilities are not just the actions of individual unethical doctors. They’re a symptom of a system that prioritizes profit over the lives and health of immigrant women and women of color. Until we change that system, these atrocities will continue to happen.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, joined by 173 members of Congress, has urged the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inspector general to open an investigation into the whistleblower allegations. Joe Biden has also called for an independent investigation.

But the atrocity of Irwin County Detention Center is not an isolated case. The racist cruelty of the immigration system is systematic and intentional. “The only way we’re going to end these horrific conditions and these abuses being committed with our taxpayer dollars is to make sure that we show up at the ballot box,” Hincapié says.

Carrie Baker is a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College and a regular contributor to Ms. Magazine. Katie Fleischer is a Smith College senior majoring in the Study of Women and Gender.
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