St. Ignatius Justice and Peace Committee, Immigration Subcommittee
This piece was authored by the Immigration Subcommittee and co-authored and edited by Emily Bruce

On September 14th, 2020, a complaint was filed by Project South, Georgia Detention Watch, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, and the South Georgia Immigrant Support Network on behalf of detained immigrants at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) in Ocilla, Georgia. Of the many appalling issues raised, Ms. Dawn Wooten, a licensed nurse employed by the ICDC, and a protected whistleblower, brought forward a particular concern about the rate at which hysterectomies were being performed on immigrant women in ICE custody. 

At the ICDC, immigrant women were routinely sent to see a particular gynecologist outside of the facility. One detained woman told Project South “some women did not trust him”, and Nurse Wooten reported:  “Everybody he sees has a hysterectomy—just about everybody. He’s even taken out the wrong ovary on a young lady [detained immigrant woman]. She was supposed to get her left ovary removed because it had a cyst on the left ovary; he took out the right one. She was upset. She had to go back to take out the left and she wound up with a total hysterectomy. She still wanted children—so she has to go back home now and tell her husband that she can’t bear kids… she said she was not all the way out under anesthesia and heard him [doctor] tell the nurse that he took the wrong ovary”.[1]

Nurse Wooten further stated several immigrant women were confused and were unable to understand what was going on at the gynecologists’ office because they spoke Spanish, but were being served by an exclusively English-speaking staff. These women often ended up with their uteruses removed from their bodies without their fully informed consent. 

Although egregious, the unfortunate truth is that forced hysterectomies on women from populations who are deemed “lesser than” by the mainstream culture, is not a new problem. There is a history of coerced sterilization in the United States with Native American, Black, and Puerto Rican women. [2]  These procedures are typically targeted towards women in jails, or institutions for mental illness.  Many experts consider this to be the work of eugenicists. [3] In fact, the original “father of gynecology”, James Marion Sims, experimented with gynecological procedures on enslaved Black women without anesthesia. [4] He operated under the belief that “Black people didn’t experience pain like white people”, as many physicians still believe today.[5] When we understand the history of where these  practices come from, it makes it easier to understand how we got to where we are.

Some might turn a blind eye to these women’s complaints, suspicions, and speculations- citing a lack of facts and circumstantial evidence of forced violence. This raises another deeply complex issue: consent. Medical consent for clinical treatment procedures and research is already an area that needs constant evaluation, because even people who “consent” might not truly be doing so. Can consent truly be given in a situation where there is a power dynamic? A language barrier? Cultural differences? Consent can quickly turn into coercion in these cases. Furthermore, across many U.S. states and medical institutions, physicians are not even required to obtain explicit consent for pelvic exams.  [6] Although this is the most intimate part of a woman’s body, it is repeatedly violated, even in the medical space.

As people of faith, this is not only an issue of severe social injustice, but it is a violation of dignity against the most vulnerable, and against life. The uterus is not just another body part or an organ- it is the holder of humanity. Forcibly removing wombs from women without their consent is an affront to what we believe, as Catholics, about women’s dignity and autonomy. It is also an intentional effort to deny these women’s ability to carry their own children, if that is what they wish to do eventually. We consider ourselves a progressive society, but as Pope Francis said in his recent encyclical, “ …the organization of societies worldwide is still far from reflecting clearly that women possess the same dignity and identical rights as men. We say one thing with words, but our decisions and reality tell another story. Indeed, “doubly poor are those women who endure situations of exclusion, mistreatment and violence, since they are frequently less able to defend their rights”.[7]

We must remain vigilant in the fight against patriarchal and colonial conquest of women’s bodies. Until women are allowed to exist freely and safely- with the right to procreate, if they choose- we all are living in the shackles of an oppressive society. 

If you would like to support organizations working directly with migrant women and children, we have compiled a list here:

  1. Kino Border Initiative
  2. Raices
  3. ACLU
  4. Border Angels
  5. Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights
  6. Save The Children
  7. Project Corazon
  8. Kids In Need of Defense
  9. Immigrant Families Together
  10. The Texas Civil Rights Project
  11. Act Blue’s Support Kids & Families At the Border
  12. Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project

To learn more about the Immigration Justice Subcommittee, visit here. 
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[1] https://drive.google.com/file/d/13Tx9D3XJtlkBH1gaZJmsj72l-QhsUVAl/view?usp=sharing

[2] https://www.minnpost.com/community-voices/2019/10/on-indigenous-peoples-day-recalling-forced-sterilizations-of-native-american-women/

[3] https://www.npr.org/2019/02/17/695574984/emma-carrie-vivian-how-a-family-became-a-test-case-for-forced-sterilizations

[4] https://www.history.com/news/the-father-of-modern-gynecology-performed-shocking-experiments-on-slaves

[5] https://www.pnas.org/content/113/16/4296.full

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/17/health/pelvic-medical-exam-unconscious.html

[7] http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20201003_enciclica-fratelli-tutti.html