Immigrant woman and children walk across a field as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Enforcement and Removal Operations hosts a media tour at the South Texas Family Residential Center, which houses families who are pending disposition of their immigration cases on Friday, Aug 23, 2019 in Dilley, Texas. (Photo credit: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Reproductive violence is constitutive of rather than an exception to the values of the United States of America. For those of us whose communities are deliberately targeted by the eugenicist American state, Dawn Wooten’s charges of mass sterilizations at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia come as a reminder that our reproductive lives have always been a threat to this country’s very foundations. Indigenous, Black, and Brown people pose a problem for a nation invested in white racial purity. These ICE abuses are only the latest and most visible in an ongoing U.S. project of genocidal extermination. Wooten, a licensed practical nurse who worked at the ICE facility until she was abruptly demoted in July, recently filed a complaint detailing forced hysterectomies of detained migrant women.
In the complaint published by Project South, an Atlanta-based advocacy organization, Wooten identifies a gynecologist she calls “the uterus collector,” who removes the uterus or fallopian tubes of practically “everybody he sees.” In her statement, the nurse details the confusion and dread experienced by detained women, who neither consented to hysterectomies nor understood what was happening to their bodies due to intentional, violent language barriers. A migrant woman confessed to Project South, “When I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp. It was like they’re experimenting with our bodies.” She’s not alone in identifying the conditions inside migrant detention centers as concentration camps, which by definition are a form of population control—a practice that extends to the origins of the settler colonial U.S. state.
Indigenous women in particular have long been targeted for genocidal violence, including experimentation and extermination. As climate disaster and civil conflict ravages Central American countries, more and more Indigenous people are migrating North (anthropologist Shannon Speed’s 2019 book, Incarcerated Stories: Indigenous Women Migrants and Violence in the Settler-Capitalist State, is a helpful introduction to the unique violences faced by Indigenous women in migrant detention centers). Their mobility poses a threat to the eugenicist state now, as it did in the 18th and 19th centuries. And so they are policed, surveilled, sterilized, and imprisoned—all techniques of reprocide. Loretta Ross—a Black feminist activist and survivor of sterilization abuse—coined the term “reprocide” to specifically describe genocide as primarily committed through reproductive control.
In the 2017 anthology Radical Reproductive Justice, Ross insists that reprocide extends to the political origins of the United States and that it happens not only through sterilization abuse, but also through mass incarceration, environmental racism, and the promotion of long-term contraceptives that providers refuse to remove or that carry prohibitive removal costs. The current forced sterilization of migrant women is not an aberration or anomaly in the history of this country; it’s an extension of the reprocide that created it. Indigenous scholars like Leanne Betasamosake Simpson teach us that Indigenous women are especially threatening because they have the potential to reproduce the next generation of people who can resist colonization. Brianna Theobald’s standout 2019 book Reproduction on the Reservation explains how the U.S. government has historically attempted to control and contain Indigenous women’s reproductive lives: Through assimilationist residential schools, the forced removal of Indigenous children into the white foster care system, and government efforts to move childbirth from the home to hospitals, the federal government surveilled where women gave birth, with whom they gave birth, and how their children were raised.
While Theobald highlights how Indigenous people lied to field nurses and concealed their pregnancies to practice reproductive self-determination, doctors in the United States began formally sterilizing Indigenous women in the 1930s. This practice ballooned in the 1970s when Congress passed the Family Planning Services Act, which subsidized sterilizations for Medicaid and Indian Health Service patients. As a result, an estimated 25 percent of Indigenous women of childbearing age underwent hysterectomies. The enslavement of Africans and their descendants was also undeniably marked by reprocide: Chattel slavery relied on enslaved Black women to produce as many children as possible; many were sold as breeders and routinely sexually assaulted to produce more enslaved people, but as scholars note, enslaved women used birth control and abortion as a means to resist this reproductive control.
Yet, enslaved women were still routinely subject to medical experimentation. James Marion Sims, also known as the “father of modern gynecology,” performed many reproductive surgeries on enslaved Black women and elected to do so without anesthesia. He also invented the modern speculum by experimenting on enslaved women. Other doctors perfected c-sections by performing surgeries on Black women without consent. During Jim Crow, some Black women were denied medical care or termination of welfare benefits if they didn’t submit to sterilization and others—including civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer—underwent “Mississippi appendectomies” as practice for medical students at teaching hospitals in the South. Today’s immigration detention centers are designed as reprocide machines—controlling who enters and is born into the country.
As a system of population control, detention centers confine and contain unwanted, undesirable populations. And while this long history of reprocide spans various—if not all—administrations, it’s clear that Trump is using migrant women’s bodies as a battleground in the struggle for white racial purity. In 2018, the Trump administration ended a previous policy mandating that ICE release pregnant women from detention—placing women outside the reach of adequate medical care and even ripping their children away at birth, as Tina Vasquez (who has contributed to Bitch) reported for Rewire. Women in detention centers are denied control over their bodies and their reproductive choices, refused access to abortion care, and the government has gone as far as to track incarcerated women’s periods to refuse abortion access.
When their children are born, many are sent to Bethany Christian Services, an organization that has received substantial donations from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. And, most recently, Trump granted visa officers the power to deny entry to pregnant women, calling their migration “birth tourism.” This rhetoric is an extension of eugenicist anxieties about “anchor babies” and poor, third world “over breeders” who take advantage of loose borders to invade the United States and interrupt the nation’s racial purity. Immigration enforcement is a mode of population control—period. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—the first immigration law to banned an entire racial group—to the creation of Border Patrol in 1924, which drew on racist ideas of health and cleanliness to exclude “diseased” Brown migrants, borders and immigration bans are a way of keeping out the unwanted. Today, ICE commits reprocide when they separate families and divide them along an arbitrary border. The agency commits reprocide when it deports people to countries facing climate disaster—a phenomenon that increases poverty, threatens quality of life, and limits food supply.
Mass sterilizations are one aspect of a state-sponsored project of controlling women of color’s reproductive lives and eliminating unwanted populations. In this way, the call to abolish ICE is a call for reproductive justice because ICE agents and guards are trained and empowered to violate the reproductive agency of migrant women. In 1994, a caucus of Black feminists at a pro-choice conference coined the term “reproductive justice” to signal not only a woman’s right not to have a child, but also their right to have children and to raise them with dignity in safe and healthy environments. This framework repositions reproductive rights in an intersectional context that centers race, gender, and class oppressions. Abolishing ICE is a practice of reproductive justice and is ultimately a move toward creating safer communities where children and families are free from surveillance and immigration enforcement.
Wooten refused to stay quiet, and even as nuanced reporting from Vasquez complicates an earlier romanticized image we had of the nurse, it’s undeniable that she has helped pave the way for a more abolitionist future. Wooten refused to reproduce a system that controls women’s bodily autonomy. In denouncing “the uterus collector,” Wooten extends a legacy of Black feminists like Loretta Ross who understand that reproductive justice is not only about abortion rights but also about having and raising children with dignity. In calling out reprocidal conditions at Irwin County Detention Center, she continues the advocacy of Hamer and others who understood the bodies of Indigenous, Black, and Brown women as sacred and worthy of protection. ICE is committing reprocide, but like Wooten, we can refuse to be complicit.
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Arresting and deporting undocumented people has become lucrative because their biological, biometric data can be mined, harvested, and used to generate profit.