Modern American Eugenics: The Fight for Reproductive Justice Continues

Compulsory Sterilization in ICE Detention Centers

The United States has a treacherous history with eugenics that continues to specifically endanger Black, Hispanic, and Native American women. Last month, an ICE whistleblower brought forth allegations of forced mass hysterectomies performed on detainees, unearthing America’s ongoing perpetuation of the abuse of immigrants’ rights.

On Sept. 14, Project South and the Georgia Accountability Project filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General that detailed the claims of Dawn Wooten, a former nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC). The ICDC is a private detention center in Ocilla, Georgia owned by Lasalle Corrections.[1] The facility houses immigrants detained by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). [2]

Lasalle Corrections, a private contractor that has immigrant detention facilities throughout Georgia, Texas and Louisiana, has a detailed history of human rights violations including unsanitary conditions, rancid and spoiled food, and understaffed medical units. [3] In 2017, Project South released an exhaustive report stating that attorneys and detainees in Lasalle Correctional facilities found food “being frequently reported as spoiled or expired, foreign objects, such as hair, plastic, bugs, rocks, a tooth and mice, were reportedly found repeatedly in the food. Detained immigrants also reported meat was rarely served, and if it was, it was generally undercooked, burnt, or rancid.” One detainee recalled the water smelling of feces and losing nearly 70 pounds since being detained.

Furthermore, in another Georgia detainee facility, “detained immigrants report that there are about sixty men in one unit who share a shower area with six showerheads, three toilets and three urinals, which may be unsanitary or nonfunctional.”

In September, news of alleged coerced sterilizations of immigrant women garnered national attention. The 27-page complaint recounted the stories of alleged medical neglect on behalf of the ICDC. One of the detainees interviewed in the complaint spoke with five women in the facility who allegedly did not know the extent of the procedure. The detainee said that the women were confused as to the reasoning of the procedure. They all received hysterectomies between October and December 2019. [2]


Eugenics has been a part of American history since the birth of the nation. Francis Galton coined the term “eugenics” in 1883 to describe the arrangement of certain demographics who can reproduce based on a society’s desirable, inherited characteristics.

“Eugenicists applied emerging theories of biology and genetics to human breeding. White elites with strong biases about who was “fit” and “unfit” embraced eugenics, believing American society would be improved by increased breeding of Anglo Saxons and Nordics, whom they assumed had high IQs. Anyone who did not fit this mold of racial perfection, which included most immigrants, Blacks, Indigenous people, poor whites and people with disabilities, became targets of eugenics programs.” [4]

Women of color have been the main targets of forced sterilization. 65% of North Carolina’s forced sterilizations in the 20th century were performed on black women, despite black women making up only 25% percent of the state’s population. As many as 25% of Native Americans between the ages of 15 and 44 were sterilized by the 1970s. [5]

A recent 2013 California state audit reported that 39 of 144 women in California prisons had been sterilized without lawful consent between the years of 2005 and 2011. However, all 144 procedures had taken place without the state’s approval. “The ‘true number’ of illegal procedures might be higher, the audit said, because auditors found seven cases at one hospital for which health records were lost in routine purging.”  [6]

What Now?

168 members of Congress and multiple activist organizations have called for an urgent briefing of the investigation of the ICDC.

To ensure the protection of reproductive justice for the future, policies that violate that right must first be overturned. The Supreme Court case, Buck v. Bell, has led to over 70,000 forced sterilizations. In 1927, the Supreme Court voted 8-1 to uphold states’ rights to “forcibly sterilize a person unfit to procreate.” [7] This decision purposefully demonizes marginalized groups whose lives and livelihoods have been institutionally oppressed.

Another way to move forward is to call for an end to prison privatization. Private prisons are the U.S. government’s default centers for undocumented migrants.[8] They maximize profit by minimizing expenditures and cutting corners. Beyond compulsory sterilization, for-profit detention centers have long contributed to the deaths of immigrants through medical mismanagement and falsified records.

For-profit prisons are neither subject to public record requests nor required to uphold the same standards as federal prisons.[9]  A year-long, 36-page report conducted by the Democratic House Oversight and Reform Committee detailed accounts of “grossly negligent” responses to diseases such as HIV, hepatitis, meningitis and tuberculosis. It goes on to mention delays in adequate healthcare to patients who experienced strokes and heart attacks. It also recounts the negligence of suicide watches and in psychiatric care for detainees.[10],[11] Private prisons generate four billion dollars annually.[8] Economizing the imprisonment of migrants is incompatible with the ideology of justice and has led to the well-documented violation of human rights across the nation.

In 2019, Georgia state officials introduced House Bill 403  which called for the end to prison privatization. The bill defined that private entities (corporations, companies, non-government agencies) should not operate detention facilities and that any current private entities operating such facilities shall not renew their contracts.[12] Unfortunately, the bill did not make it to a vote on the House floor. Change is possible, though. 22 states (both under Democratic and Republican leadership) do not house incarcerated people in for-profit prisons.[13] Although advocacy for ending private detention centers is apparent through drafted legislation, our nation still has a long way to go to ensure the safety of all human life and the ideals that liberty and justice truly belong to all.















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