Pauline Binam, an immigrant from Cameroon imprisoned in the Irwin County, Georgia detention center, was told she had to have minor surgery to remove small cysts. She was reluctant to undergo the surgery, since she had heard stories of invasive procedures, including sterilization, among other women detained in the center, but she finally agreed.
When she came out of the office of Dr. Mahendra Amin, the gynecologist for the center, she was informed that he had removed her fallopian tube—without warning and without consent. Binam joined a growing number of women who have testified about unnecessary gynecological surgeries and sterilizations in the center. One immigrant woman at Irwin told lawyers she talked to five women who had undergone hysterectomies and none seemed to understand what had happened to them, much less why.
“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 said in a formal complaint filed by Project South.
Much of the complaint with the Department of Homeland Security is based on the testimony of a brave nurse who decided to speak out. Dawn Wooten, an LPN at the Irwin County center, told Project South that immigrant women sent to Amin were routinely sterilized, regardless of the complaint they went in with. Wooten, who is a protected whistleblower now, told a crowd “I became a whistleblower, now I’m a target. I’ll be a target anytime, as opposed to remaining a part of an inhumane system”. She was demoted. Binam, who arrived in the United States at the age of two, was whisked away for express deportation, but when it was suspected that authorities falsified her travel documents for the deportation and her case received major media attention, she was released for humanitarian reasons. Binam, 29, had been in detention for three years, separated from her little daughter, her family and the place she had called home almost her entire life.
The organizations that filed the lawsuit and more than 170 members of congress have demanded a full investigation. The Irwin center, run by the private company LaSalle Corrections, is also accused of failing to implement measures to control COVID-19, poor hygiene and other health-related violations.
The practice of sterilizing migrant women might be much more widespread, and any investigation must go beyond Irwin County. Migrant women and their advocates have been reporting violations of women’s health, sexual and reproductive rights, including sterilization, in immigrant detention centers since at least 2015.
The whistleblower report at the Irwin County Center reignited criticism of the offensive against immigrant rights. Under the openly white supremacist rule of Donald Trump, immigrant detention–almost all private now–has expanded by 40 new centers and conditions have deteriorated. Although no evidence has emerged so far to prove that the sterilizations are official policy and ICE has expressed “skepticism” of the victims’ testimony, they are clearly not an anomaly. Trump’s attacks have intensified under the cruel rule of DHS acting secretary Chad Wolf, who is now up for confirmation. The Trump administration and Wolf in particular, have consistently hailed measures including detention, child separation, deportation and denial of asylum rights, aimed at purging the nation of Black and Brown immigrants to advance the white supremacist agenda. The forced sterilization of indigenous-mestizo women from Latin America might not have occurred as the result of an explicit memo from DHS, but it certainly follows the genocidal logic of this purge.
It’s just as important to put the sterilizations in the context of the offensive against women’s rights. The bodily mutilation of immigrant women reveals a system that views women’s bodies as territories of conquest, as if there were no human being inside, and migrants as targets of genocide, as if they had no right to exist. When that’s the starting point, sterilization is the logical destination.
The practice certainly isn’t new. In the seventies as most of the feminist movement fought for the right to abortion, the U.S. government quietly admitted to a federally funded program to sterilize Native American women. The GAO did a partial calculation based on findings in just four of the twelve Indian Health Service Regions. and reported that 3,406 Native American women were sterilized between 1973 and 1974, generally without free and informed consent. Researcher Breonna Theobald calculates that one-fourth of indigenous women of child-bearing age were sterilized in the decade. Many were under 21 despite a court-ordered moratorium on sterilization of women under 21.
In the early 80s, as part of the National Reproductive Rights National Network, we launched a campaign against forced sterilization focused on three places where it was widely used against women of color: Native American reservations, impoverished Black communities in the south and Puerto Rico. The urgent need was to stop the abuses. The other goal was to broaden the feminist movement’s perspectives on reproductive rights. Racist and capitalist patriarchy has always imposed a dual, and contradictory, prescription on women: To impose childbearing and child-raising on some women, while cutting off rights to have and raise their children among others.
Feminist organizations at the time were focusing almost exclusively on abortion rights and often spoke of motherhood as somehow a lesser vocation for women, rather than analyzing the conditions of motherhood and understanding how millions of women were being denied those minimal conditions. For white women with employment and education opportunities, abortion and contraception were the issues that most affected their lives. For poor women and many women of color especially, the right to choose had to include attaining and defending motherhood. Our slowness as white feminists in understanding those differences caused divisions in the movement, and still does.
Trump’s “Culture Wars” and Women
Today we face a new, perhaps even more heinous, attack on women’s wombs and free and chosen motherhood. We can’t afford to make the same mistakes. In a polarized United States, defined by culture wars, women’s role lies at the heart of the divide. As the Movement for Black Lives and immigrant rights organizations have brought far greater awareness to systemic violence against people of color and the immediate threat from white supremacists, the feminist movement has lagged in describing how violence against women is also strategic and systemic-at a time when threats are increasing.
Much of the Movement for Black Lives has integrated the critique of patriarchy into their protests and their visions, thanks to young activists who experience different forms of oppressions in their lives and have developed an integrated analysis and forms of struggle. We need to take that analysis further. Because racism and sexism are inseparable in the rightwing vision of its rise to power. Alongside the purge of immigrants, the disenfranchisement and murder of Black people and the hate crimes against people of color, there is a renewed offensive on women’s sexual and reproductive rights, a rise in violence against women and more open misogyny.
Based on our greater understanding of “intersectionality”, developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw’s, particularly of race and class, the left is moving closer to merging the two frameworks of analysis. Women’s oppression plays out in many ways, with nuances and differences, while concentrating on wresting control over women’s bodies and rolling back women’s gains in autonomy.
Today, the rightwing offensive involves stacking the Supreme Court to eliminate or restrict Roe v. Wade, violent backlash against feminism in the home and on the web, and an effort to withdraw women from the workforce. Spurred by the pandemic, the contradiction between primary responsibility for young children, without school or daycare, and paid work has compelled women to return to economic dependency in the home. If reproductive rights are restricted as planned, they will also be forced into maternity. After reaching the lowest gender gap in employment in history, today even white, educated women who previously resolved the contradiction by hiring help and faced less job instability than women of color (generally speaking) have had to leave the job market. Experts calculate that millions may not be able to return.
This sets well with Trump, Stephen Miller and their supporters–misogynists who are terrified of the inevitable demographic shift when the United States is no long majority white. Part of the strategy to avert the end of white domination, at least in numerical (and voting) terms, is to oblige white women to have babies. Many of the religious fundamentalist groups behind the alt-right explicitly preach women’s duty to reproduce and adopt traditional roles as mothers.
The prescription for women who are incarcerated, women of color, LGBTQ and poor women is different. Although expelled from the workforce at an even higher rate, the cutbacks in health services and housing, reduced access to food, deportation, family separation and racial violence bar them from even the idealized, but limiting, vision of motherhood offered. The face expulsion, disruption of family life and, at the extreme, forced sterilization.
The term “culture wars” refers to viewing political differences as a battle of fundamental beliefs and practices. Decades ago, conservatives portrayed feminist issues of abortion and sexual orientation as defining identities and threats to the status quo (as they saw it) to mobilize their base. Today Trump has used the so-called culture wars to build wedge issues on everything from confederate statues to Obamacare to “law and order” and, of course, immigration.
Much about the term is misleading though. “Culture wars” as competing identities within society—diversity versus MAGA, American exceptionalism vs. historical critique, etc. –obscures hate ideologies based on falsehoods. The term also implies confrontations that take place in the terrain of “culture”, that is, not as real power struggles, but as a competition for hearts and minds, but the goal of patriarchal, white supremacy is physical, actual power–to dominate in all spheres of society. And “culture” presents as soft power, when the rightwing’s war for the future is fought with a lot of hard power—armed militias, police brutality, incarceration, domestic violence.
War might not be the right word either–hopefully it won’t get to that. But there is a life-and-death contest for the future going on. And who will control women’s wombs, and women’s lives, is at the center of it.