Just a couple of weeks ago, “the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General received a formal complaint alleging that unnecessary hysterectomies were being performed on immigrants in custody at Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Irwin County Detention center in Georgia.”* That is, ICE detention centers are forcefully having women sterilized, and no one is doing anything about it. As alarming as this news is, it is also important to note a long on-going oppression that the US has enabled through reproduction. This isn’t a repetition of history, it’s a continuation. A year ago, I created this timeline (to the left) for my LLS 235 final project which highlights a brief history of forced sterilization in the US. I couldn’t possibly fit all of it in a timeline, nor in this article, but here are a couple instances where the US targeted women, and more specifically BIPOC women, and forcefully sterilized them to solve “societal problems.”
The biggest instance of sterilization in modern US History is the eugenics movement. While eugenics is typically associated with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis framework of creating this perfect breed, this term was coined by Francis Galton, and English explorer and anthropologist, in 1883.
He basically came to believe that intelligence and character were genetic and thus society should take steps to encourage procreation of people of “superior stock”. ** By the early 1900s many states in the US began to pass eugenic related laws that allowed for “socially inadequate” members of society to be sterilized in order to prevent them from procreate with a belief that this would improve societal problems, such as poverty and crime. All these were further justified by the Supreme Court case, Buck vs. Bell, as the decision upheld Virginia's sterilization laws.
While this movement died down by the 1960s, many scholars agree that around 60,000 women and men were sterilized under these laws. 20,000 of these cases actually came from California, implying a need to further control not only unfit bodies, but those who they saw as unfit were already people over-racialized. Latina women were (and still are) seen as “overly-fertile”, and even worse with immigrant Latina women, they are seen as wanting to have American children for the sake of getting welfare.
Madrigal v. Quilligan
This over sexualization and racialization of Latina women is very evident in the federal case of Madrigal v. Quilligan. In the early 1970s, 10 women sued the Los Angeles County Medical Center claiming that between 1971 and 1974 they were involuntarily sterilized after giving birth. According to The New York Times Magazine, “Madrigal v. Quilligan revolved around two fundamental questions: Did obstetricians at County Hospital perform tubal ligations on their patients without proper consent? And did doctors single out Latinas for the procedures?”*** The answers to these questions was a no, instead the court ruled this as a simple “miscommunication” between the women and their doctors. The majority of these women were immigrants who barely spoke English, and many claimed their “consent” was given while in the midst of giving birth, where they were in pain and on many medications. Some of these women weren’t even aware they couldn’t have children anymore until years later.
The need to control a population through sterilization and even reproduction is evident in many cases in US history. What is happening now has a clear tie to not only the eugenics movement, but to the continuing dehumanization of immigrant and “othering” of people of color. It’s even sadder to see that these are things never talked about in regular classes, or even acknowledged. It’s important for all of us to do more research and see the horrible mistreatment both physically and mentally of BIPOC groups in the past and right now.