By Kelsey Whalen
ICE detention centers are notable for their inhumane conditions. These conditions include lack of soap, toothpaste, and a place to shower. Detained immigrants are living in cramped spaces, cages, and sleeping on concrete floors. While these living conditions are bad in normal times, the COVID-19 pandemic has made an already bad situation even worse. On September 14, 2020, a nurse working at an ICE detention center in Georgia exposed another horrifying condition detained women have experienced: forced hysterectomies.
Detained women and girls have been particularly vulnerable to harsh conditions in detention centers. Specifically, they have been denied access to basic women’s health services. Detention center staff often disregard health complications until they become an emergency. And it doesn’t help that detention center health standards are inconsistent among facilities, and even where there are standards are in place, they often go unenforced. This lack of order has led to several cases where pregnant women have gone into early labor which resulted in stillbirths, miscarriages, or serious medical issues for the baby. One detained sixteen-year-old girl was two months pregnant and was denied adequate food, rest, and medical care, resulting in her losing twenty pounds while pregnant.
The harm to women in detention centers is not limited to inadequate healthcare either. Women and girls have routinely been denied their constitutional right to an abortion while being detained as well. Pregnant women requesting an abortion have been sent to “fake ‘crisis pregnancy centers’ that attempt to coerce them into carrying their pregnancies to term . . .” Mothers have also been separated from their children in the detention center. ICE officials deny women basic health care, forcing women to carry out pregnancy, but then deny women their ability to parent their children.
Detained women are clearly not new victims in the deprivation of constitutional and basic human rights, but the allegations concerning hysterectomies performed on women at the Georgia detention center are beyond disturbing. For example, one woman needed to have an ovary removed because it had a cyst on it. However, as the anesthesia began to wear off after the procedure, the woman heard the doctor who performed the surgery state to the nurse that he took the wrong ovary out. The doctor had to perform another surgery to remove the correct ovary, resulting in a full hysterectomy.
Many detained women have been confused as to why they were forced to even get a hysterectomy. One detained woman stated, “I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp. It was like they’re experimenting with our bodies.” The whistleblower who worked as a licensed practical nurse at a Georgia detention center stated she and other nurses became alarmed at the large number of detained women who received hysterectomies, all from the same doctor. She explained, “We’ve questioned among ourselves like goodness he’s taking everybody’s stuff out . . . . That’s his specialty, he’s the uterus collector . . . . Everybody he sees, he’s taking all their uteruses out or he’s taken their tubes out.”
Sadly, the forced sterilization of women in the United States is nothing new. It was not until 1942 that the Supreme Court recognized procreation as a basic civil right, which finally rejected states’ arguments that eugenic sterilizations were a legitimate state goal. However, forced sterilizations have continued, particularly for marginalized groups. Today, with the forced sterilization of immigrant women, this disturbing trend continues.