Forced, forced, or ill-informed sterilizations have a long and ugly history and relationship with eugenics in the United States. Vulnerable groups of people have been subjected to experiments and medical procedures without their consent or knowledge based on bigoted ideas about what a “desirable” population should look like.
When a nurse at an immigration and customs detention center in Georgia filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security last month alleging female inmates had been subjected to sterilization procedures without their full knowledge, that story came back.
“Reproductive oppression is what counteracts reproductive justice. So when we talk about reproductive justice and oppression, we are looking at the legacy of this land from more than 500 years from the beginning of colonization in this country,” said Laura Jimenez, executive director of California Latinas for reproductive justice. “I think it is important to talk about who is being forcibly or forcibly sterilized without their consent or knowledge, because we know this is compatible with the ‘science’ of eugenics and this type of theory.”
Jimenez and CLRJ work to build Latina power and leadership in the state, and to achieve reproductive justice in California and across the country through political advocacy, community organization, and community-informed research. Their work on reproductive justice is based on the belief that all people have the right to make choices about their reproduction and access to reproductive health services and education. that people have the right to choose children and make those decisions without interference from governments or other systems or institutions; that parents and children have the right to a safe and healthy environment free of violence; and that people have the right to physical autonomy and gender identity and that these rights are respected.
She took some time to discuss the allegations at the Georgia ICE facility, the history of forced sterilization in the US, and its impact on reproductive justice work. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: When the reports of forced sterilization at the ICE Georgia Detention Center first came out last month, what were you thinking about, particularly regarding the work you do with CLRJ?
A: Honestly, what came to mind was just pure anger. CLRJ has been involved in this work since around 2015, particularly in the area of sterilization. We work very closely with the producer and director of “No Más Bebés”, the film about the sterilization of Mexican women at LA County-USC Medical Center in the (1960s and) 70s. We did a lot of film screenings and were able to talk about the impact sterilization has on the target groups and how it affects reproductive suppression and reproductive justice. We were also affiliated with an organization called Justice Now, which exposed the sterilization of prisons in California prisons in the early 2000s. So what comes to mind is that since colonization the rights of blacks and indigenous coloreds have been taken away in various forms. Genocide is a form, enslavement is a form, being apart from your family is a form; and what we are seeing now is just the implementation of racist and eugenic practices by the current federal administration. It’s consistent behavior for them. It’s obnoxious and violent, but it’s consistent because they still keep kids away from their families in prisons, and we see that as an absolute part of this eugenics practice. People think they can just do these things because this is a population that is vulnerable and doesn’t have a lot of opportunities to defend itself. I think there is a systemic failure from education to institutions to the state and federal government that is ridiculous and dangerous.
Q: Where does this recent forced sterilization fall in the context of the reproductive justice work?
A: Institutions and governments decide who they consider fit to reproduce, and I think, in a larger context, who they consider fit to be part of the nation’s citizenship. In this particular context of the sterilizations in the ICE prison in Georgia, the immigrants’ lives were obviously given no value, so their sterilization was not considered important. Again, they’re seen as throwaway people who don’t need that right, and I think that’s consistent with what we’ve seen here in California prisons. People in prison are generally not thought of systems and society in general. You are considered available and human rights do not necessarily apply once you have been convicted of a crime. Looking back at California’s Eugenics Act from 1909 to 1979 and people being sterilized in state institutions, it was definitely decided that if there was a racial component, a disability component, or a class component deemed unworthy or unsuitable or available, those people were too . Their reproduction was not important.
Q: The United States has a long history of this type of medical abuse against people who were arbitrarily classified as “undesirable” for children – women, girls, people of color, people with disabilities, and those who were convicted of crimes. How do these recent reports of compulsory eugenics fit into the history of this country?
A: I think these recent sterilizations are consistent with the pattern we’ve seen over the past 500 years. Whenever a group is the target of the decade – or the century or 500 years – it is the group that is vulnerable and does not have much defense against these things. When talking about medical procedures, we are not all doctors, so we do not all know why we may need surgery and fully understand it. The lawyers did an excellent job in the 1970s to counteract these sterilizations and come up with some really important regulations on sterilization. The fact that governments and institutions continue to ignore them or arbitrarily decide that certain people are not entitled to the same rules that a rich white woman would have is a problem. This is an indication of a racist system, of a classical system, of a system that works.
Q: It appears that these practices overlap a number of issues including racism, xenophobia and misogyny. How can forced sterilization further marginalize people who already show a power deficit compared to other members of society?
A: I think this question really makes me think about some of the scenes in “No Más Bebés” and the responses of some women who said things like, “My husband and I decided not to tell anyone.” So it is a shame. There is a kind of feeling of being different or outside of what you yourself understand to be part of your culture or community. I also remember that there was another woman in the film who talked about the friction that sterilization created between her and her husband and about violence in this particular situation. So I think people aren’t sure what kind of trauma is caused by someone depriving them of the right to choose whether to procreate or have children. Taking this right away is extremely traumatic and affects not only the woman, but also the family, the community, a culture. Here we also see problems of distrust of the medical community in certain communities due to experimental testing, due to these types of forced sterilizations that people didn’t even know they were having. So how can we build trust? This further marginalizes certain communities that may not want to adhere to the treatments they may need for diabetes or heart disease. Or coronavirus. It is a problem that will continue until we address the problem and hold accountability from the people and institutions that are responsible for it.
Q: In some of these conversations about the need for informed consent and respect for physical autonomy, the question has been raised of whether consent is really possible in places like prisons and detention centers for immigrants. Can you help us understand the argument that, in these circumstances, there cannot be genuine consent within a reproductive justice framework?
A: In any type of prison – whether it is state, county, federal, or immigration prison – the detainees have no power and the safety, the guards, the guards, the judges have no power People who have all the power. We talk about security issues. I would imagine it thinking, “If I do what I’m asked, can I see my family?” How are such “privileges” used? I think when you have people in a cancerous setting there is no real consent for this type of procedure. For this reason, laws like SB 1135 were written to prevent further sterilization in prisons. However, we’re not entirely sure if these stopped. So these are issues that we must continue to shed light on so that people, institutions and those in power recognize that they will be held accountable for these actions. We cannot find that some people deserve human rights. There is no earning or not earning. They are easy. They are simple and are attributed to all individuals. Not all people who are not imprisoned, or all people who are white. All people.