Addressing the Legacy of US-Sponsored Reproductive Coercion

This blog is the second in our series on priorities for the incoming Biden administration. Read our first installation, here.

The incoming Biden administration provides an opportunity to not only reverse the harmful and unjust policies of the Trump administration, but also to advance policies that respect human rights, increase bodily autonomy, and set the US on a path toward gender justice. One of the key challenges facing President-elect Biden is the forced sterilization of women in US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody and the continued legacy of reproductive coercion.

This fall, Dawn Wooten, a nurse in Georgia’s Irwin County Detention Center, filed a whistleblower complaint after detained, immigrant women bravely revealed that ICE subjected them to invasive medical procedures, including hysterectomies without their consent. Put plainly, the US government had forcibly sterilized immigrant women in their custody.

Forced and coerced sterilization is a form of racism and a function of white supremacy that dehumanizes Black and Brown bodies to control their reproduction. It is recognized by global human rights bodies as akin to torture. To anyone familiar with the reproductive justice framework, these women’s experiences are just the latest in a long-established record of US reproductive coercion and state-sponsored violence directed toward women of color. A few examples include:

  • Poor Black women were sterilized between the 1920s-80s, without their knowledge, in what Fannie L. Hammer called the “Mississippi Appendectomy.” Hammer, an activist, was sterilized after presenting herself to the hospital for tumor removal.
  • In Puerto Rico, poor, uneducated women were subject to the US’ first large-scale human trial on birth control pills; it resulted in three deaths.
  • Between the 1960s-70s, immigrant women from California were sterilized, without their knowledge or consent, upon going into labor. Many women recall language being a barrier when presenting themselves to the hospital. The film No Mas Bebes documents their stories.

At the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC), we have long fought against reproductive coercion of all kinds. At the groundbreaking 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo, IWHC alongside the global feminist movement successfully advocated to transform the focus from “population control” to reproductive rights, which were recognized for the first time as human rights. This shift was due, in part, to concerns about widespread forced sterilization and the need to center the rights of women to make decisions about their own bodies and lives. One year after Cairo, IWHC and the feminist movement celebrated the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which reaffirmed Cairo’s outcomes and recognized the rights of women to have control over all aspects of their sexuality.

Despite recognition 26 years ago, reproductive rights abuses continue to be a global phenomenon, disproportionately impacting women of color. Under the Trump administration, the US government’s culpability in reproductive rights violations skyrocketed. In addition to the forced sterilizations cited above, ICE and other entities have shackled pregnant women and refused to provide care for miscarriages, denied abortion to adolescents, and tracked menstrual cycles. To make matters worse, ICE has expedited deportations to remove victims and witnesses of the recent reproductive coercion practices in Georgia amidst calls for investigation.

Efforts such as Representative Jayapal’s interception of a deportation, “the Squad’s” letter to UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, and Congress’ letter to senior officials in the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, and FBI demanding a pause in witnesses’ deportations have helped alleviate the situation, but they are far from sufficient.

In partnership with Congress, the incoming Biden administration has the obligation to not only undo many of the immigration practices and policies implemented under the Trump administration—and those preceding it—but it must work to advance policies that truly center the health and dignity of those most impacted. Informed by targeted communities and civil society efforts such as the Blueprint for Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice, the Biden administration must:

  • End the practice of detaining pregnant people in immigration detention facilities;
  • End all practices of reproductive coercion and misinformation in immigration detention facilities;
  • Allow individuals to seek asylum on the basis of domestic violence and reproductive coercion; and,
  • Ensure that incarcerated and detained women and youth, transgender men, nonbinary and gender nonconforming individuals have access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care, including abortion and prenatal care; health care supplies such as menstrual hygiene products; proper nutrition; support during labor and delivery; lactation and parenting support after birth; and access to substance abuse and mental health treatment through executive action, agency guidance, and strong congressional oversight.

IWHC will continue to stand in solidarity with immigrant and reproductive justice advocates and organizations to advocate for the health and rights of all people, regardless of immigration status, to make informed decisions over their lives free from reproductive coercion and misinformation. This includes championing legislation that expands access to health care, including sexual and reproductive health, for immigrant communities and fighting against xenophobic policies and regulations that punish immigrants for their social and economic status.

Photo: US Customs and Border Protection 

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