In early September, a nurse working at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Georgia came forward with shocking allegations of medical neglect and abuse, claiming that numerous involuntary hysterectomies (uterus removal surgeries) were performed on detained immigrant women. This allegation understandably evoked fury and outrage among the general public, with numerous people denouncing it as a human rights violation and yet another example of the current administration’s cruelty towards women and immigrants. Many people, including prominent liberal politicians and public figures, viewed it as something distinctly un-American and at odds with our country’s values — a common refrain that echoed in response to the allegation was “This isn’t the America I know.” There were countless comparisons to Nazi Germany and other totalitarian, human rights-abusing regimes, as well as a pervasive sense that the United States was engaging in a uniquely cruel and unprecedented act. Unfortunately, this is a misleading impression.
While the allegations against ICE are undoubtedly horrific and must be investigated, they are not at all unprecedented or un-American — in fact, they are very American. The United States has a long, egregious, and largely unknown history of eugenics and forced sterilization, primarily directed towards poor women, disabled women, and women of color.
The American eugenics movement originated in the late 1800s and has always been undeniably based in racism and nativism. The word “eugenics” originally referred to the biological improvement of human genes, but was used as a pseudoscience to justify discriminatory and destructive acts against supposedly undesirable people, such as extremely restrictive immigration laws, anti-miscegenation laws, and forced sterilization. The ultimate goal of the eugenics movement was to “breed out” undesirable traits in order to create a society with a “superior” genetic makeup, which essentially meant reducing the population of the non-white and the mentally ill. The eugenics movement was widely accepted in American society well into the 20th century, and was not at all relegated to the fringes of society like one might expect. In fact, most states had federally funded eugenics boards, and state-ordered sterilization was a common occurrence. Sterilization was seen as one of the most effective ways to stem the growth of an “undesirable” population, since ending a woman’s reproductive capabilities meant that she would no longer be able to contribute to the population.
The Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell (1927) decided that a Virginia law authorizing the mandatory sterilization of inmates in mental institutions was constitutional. Carrie Buck, a “feeble minded woman” whose mental illness had been in her family for the past three generations, was committed to a state mental institution and was set to undergo a sterilization procedure which required a hearing. The Supreme Court found that the Virginia law was valuable and did not violate the Constitution, and would prevent the United States from “being swamped with incompetence…Three generations of imbeciles is enough.” The Court has never explicitly overturned Buck v. Bell.
California’s “Asexualization Acts” in the 1910s and 1920s led to the sterilization of 20,000 disproportionately Black and Mexican people who were deemed to be mentally ill. Hitler and the Nazis were reportedly inspired by California’s laws when formulating their own genocidal eugenics policies in the 1930s. When discussing the Asexualization Acts of California, Hitler wrote, “There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception [of citizenship] are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States.”
Throughout the 20th century, nearly 70,0000 people (overwhelmingly working-class women of color) were sterilized in over 30 states. Black women, Latina women, and Native American women were specifically targeted. From the 1930s to the 1970s, nearly one-third of the women in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, were coerced into sterilization when government officials claimed that Puerto Rico’s economy would benefit from a reduced population. Sterilization was so common that it became known as “La Operación (The Operation)” among Puerto Ricans.
Black women were also disproportionately and forcibly sterilized and subjected to reproductive abuse. In North Carolina in the 1960s, Black women made up 65 percent of all sterilizations of women, although they were only 25 percent of the population. One Black woman who was subjected to a forced hysterectomy during this time was Fannie Lou Hamer, a renowned civil rights activist. Hamer described how nonconsensual sterilizations of working-class Black women in the South were so common that they were colloquially known as a “Mississippi appendectomy”.
Additionally, many Native American women were sterilized against their will. According to a report by historian Jane Lawrence, the Indian Health Service was accused of sterilizing nearly 25% of Indigenous women during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1973, the year that Roe v. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court, supposedly ensuring reproductive rights for all American women, the reproductive rights of thousands of Indigenous women were entirely ignored as they were forcibly sterilized.
Forced sterilization, especially in exchange for a sentence reduction, occurs often in the criminal legal system today. Government-sanctioned efforts to prevent incarcerated people from reproducing were widespread in the 20th century, and still continue today. In 2017, a judge in Tennessee offered to reduce the jail sentences of convicted people who appeared before him in court if they “volunteered” to undergo sterilization. In 2009, a 21-year-old woman in West Virginia convicted of marijuana possession underwent sterilization as part of her probation. In 2018, an Oklahoma woman convicted of cashing a counterfeit check received a reduced sentence after undergoing sterilization at the suggestion of the judge. According to a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting, almost 150 women considered likely to return to prison were sterilized in California prisons between 2004 and 2003. Although they had to sign “consent” forms, the procedure, when posed as an incentive for a reduced sentence, generates an ongoing debate about whether or not consent actually exists in these situations. Proponents of the sterilization of incarcerated individuals often cite a lack of “personal responsibility,” when in reality, many of these individuals face a lack of support and resources. Even if incarceration was somehow the singular determinant of one’s morals and character, sterilization as part of a prison sentence is still a fundamental violation of the right to reproductive autonomy — something judges and prison officials choose to ignore.
As evidenced, forced sterilizations in the United States are unfortunately nothing new and nothing of the past, either. Yet, judging from the reactions to the recent allegations of involuntary hysterectomies performed at ICE detention facilities, many people are under the impression that these are unprecedented atrocities that are unique to the Trump administration. Of course, it is not any individual’s personal fault for being unaware of the United States’ history with eugenics and forced sterilization; rather, it is a reflection of our education system and the history we prioritize. Personally, the only time I learned about eugenics and sterilization at my American public high school was when we learned about Nazi Germany, and these topics were never mentioned in my U.S. history classes. I felt so disturbed when I learned about them on my own for the first time and was also frustrated when I thought about the question: If I didn’t know about this, what other historical atrocities am I unaware of? Our historical education curriculum overemphasizes certain positive aspects of American history while completely glossing over others — we spend an entire semester learning about the American Revolution, only to be completely uninformed about the United States’ historical systemic and comprehensive policies designed to reduce the populations of certain groups. The absence of historical education about American eugenics and forced sterilization in our education curriculums is one of the reasons why President Trump’s proposed “1776 Commission“, which will supposedly promote “patriotic education,” is so concerning. Our education system already ignores many of the worst parts of American history, and if patriotism becomes a deciding factor in determining a curriculum, “history” class may very well become solely an account of America’s victories and address absolutely none of its faults.
It is completely understandable that many people are quick to describe the allegations against ICE as “un-American” and incompatible with the vision of America that they know. It certainly is uncomfortable to learn about the shameful things America has done, especially since it seems irreconcilable with the concept of “American exceptionalism” that many of us have been taught. However, it is crucial to reckon with history and understand the context in which current events take place. Unequivocally believing in American exceptionalism has frequently led to double standards when it comes to assessing the practices of other countries. If it was alleged that officials in another country were conducting involuntary hysterectomies on detained women, the United States would undoubtedly (rightly) call this out as a human rights violation. Even though it may sometimes seem this way, the United States is not above international law — forced sterilization is considered a form of torture by the United Nations — and it should be held accountable to the standards that it sets.
Viewing the allegations against ICE as “un-American” and thinking of forced sterilizations as something invented by the Trump administration also fosters the misconception that voting Donald Trump out of office will somehow fix everything that is wrong with our country. To clarify, he should absolutely be voted out, and his administration is especially dangerous and cruel towards detained immigrants. We would probably not be hearing these allegations had Trump lost the 2016 election. It seems as though some people believe that everything will be fine and we will be able to return to “normalcy” as soon as Trump is no longer president. Yet, the current president is, in reality, a symptom of a much larger problem that will not be fixed just by voting him out of office. In reality, Donald Trump and his administration did not invent the concepts of eugenics and forced sterilization, nor were they the first to implement these concepts in the United States. Sterilizations and other human rights abuses in detention centers and prisons will not suddenly end right when Donald Trump leaves office — it will require sustained advocacy and activism.
While it is reasonable to compare ICE’s alleged actions to those of Nazi Germany or other totalitarian regimes, one does not have to look so far across the globe to find a relevant comparison, because of America’s long and shameful history of forced sterilization of poor and disabled women of color. If these allegations are true, ICE absolutely needs to be held accountable and face public outrage. However, in its outrage, the public should be cognizant of the fact that eugenics and forced sterilization are not at all “un-American.” If we really want to believe in the idea of “American exceptionalism” in a (hopefully) post-Trump world, we need to reimagine what it truly means to be exceptional. America is not exceptional because it has never done anything wrong or has better morals or values than other countries, but it can move towards becoming exceptional if it takes accountability, understands and acknowledges the most shameful parts of our history, and vows never to repeat them.
Featured Image Source: Timeline.com