During all of 2020, Black women have yet to experience a week of uninterrupted peace. Between losing our jobs and lives due to COVID-19, coping with unceasing videos of police murdering Black people, and dealing with white institutions’ inability to sustainably support racial justice, we collectively need a restorative vacation—at least emotionally and spiritually.
Sadly, that isn’t going to happen this week.
On Monday a former Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) employment alleged medical neglect and abuse—including performing unnecessary hysterectomies—on people detained in a facility in Georgia, according to a complaint filed to the Department of Homeland Security inspector general.
The news of medical professionals performing hysterectomies without consent is both horrifying and unsurprising. The United States has a long history of performing reproductive coercion aimed at Black, Indigenous, Latinx, poor and disabled women. What’s happening today at the Irwin County Detention Center hundreds of years later is a direct result of the legacy of disrespect and abuse that strips us of the human right to decide when to have children.
Torturing Black women through reproductive coercion is enmeshed in how we experience medicine today; the doctor who created the speculum used to perform vaginal exams, J. Marion Sims, gained notoriety for experimenting on enslaved African women without anesthesia, though it was available at the time. In the twentieth century, birth control was dangerously tested in Latin America, Puerto Rican women were sterilized en mass without their consent, and Black Southern women like Fannie Lou Hamer received secret hysterectomies called “Mississippi appendectomies.” And no one can forget the Tuskegee experiment.
Black women continue to be neglected and erased, even in this most recent human rights violation. The narrative on immigration centers non-Black immigrants from Latin America. Yet, according to immigration rights organization RAICES, nearly half of families held in detention centers during the COVID-19 pandemic are Haitian. Unsurprisingly, immigrants from European nations are unlikely to be detained.
American medicine has clearly exported its own legacy of reproductive coercion as a keystone of its foreign policy, often under the guise of “family planning.” International development and public health organizations spend trillions to provide contraception to developing nations, without concern for what women and pregnant people really need for sexual and reproductive wellbeing. The racist assumption is that preventing unintended pregnancy alone is a sage anti-poverty policy agenda. But childbirth doesn’t drive entire nations into legacies of poverty—colonialism, capitalism and racism do.
Women of color, regardless of their legal status or where they are born in the world, have the human right to personal bodily autonomy, the right to decide if and when to have children, and the right to parent those children in safe and sustainable communities. Removing uteruses unnecessarily and without consent sends a clear message that our children, our literal future, are targeted for state sanctioned execution prior even before they’re conceived.
Compulsory sterilization is a gross miscarriage of justice; for it to occur during a global pandemic adds an additional layer of harm to an already dire situation.
The reproductive justice community stands in solidarity with our sisters in detention camps across the country. We call for the immediate cessation of all sterilization procedures without consent, the closing of all detention centers and the abolishment of ICE. The reproductive freedom of all Black people is at stake when our sisters, who are inhumanely detained, are sterilized without their consent. The women in these centers are seeking a better life; the visions that include future generations should have the chance to be fulfilled.