Not long after defenders of Donald Trump’s anti-immigration agenda pilloried U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for calling Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) prisons “concentration camps on our southern border,” an ICE detainee in Georgia is alleging cruel and horrific medical neglect, including forced sterilizations performed by a gynecologist dubbed “the uterus collector.”
“When I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp,” the detainee is quoted as saying in a whistleblower complaint, noting that between October and December 2019, she met five different women at the prison who had been given non-consensual hysterectomies. “It was like they’re experimenting with our bodies.”
The Third Reich’s experiments in sterilization, conducted at the Auschwitz and Ravensbrück camps, and ultimately including more 400,000 children and adult victims, looms larger than any other in the world’s historical memory. But Germany’s eugenics sterilization project—a program of mass genocide—should be recognized as an example of applied learning rooted in lessons taken from the United States, the original world-renowned leader in compulsory sterilization.
“I have studied with interest the laws of several American states concerning prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny would, in all probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial stock,” Hitler reportedly told a Nazi colleague. “I’m sure that occasionally mistakes do occur as a result. But the possibility of excess and error is still no proof of the incorrectness of these laws.”
America’s sterilization laws, accepted by the Supreme Court, variously targeted Black, Native, Latina, and Puerto Rican women for over a century as more than 60,000 people were forcibly sterilized under legislation originally and broadly dedicated to the eradication of “feeblemindedness,” but which ultimately served as a means to racial extermination.
The world’s first compulsory sterilization legislation, passed in 1907, was enacted in Indiana, followed in 1909 by the "Asexualization Act” in California. Those two laws heavily informed The Third Reich’s 1933 “Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases.”
California would ultimately perform one-third of all U.S. mandatory sterilizations, more than any other state. Latina women, mostly those of Mexican descent, were sterilized at 59 percent higher rates than non-Latinas. Researchers Nicole L. Novak and Natalie Lira reviewed medical records that showed “doctors who performed sterilizations would label Latinas as “sex delinquents” whose “sterilizations were described as necessary to protect the state from increased crime, poverty and racial degeneracy.”
The program was officially terminated under the law in 1979, but unwanted sterilizations would continued to be performed in California, with an estimated 1,400 incarcerated women subjected to unwanted and illegal hysterectomies between 1997 and 2013 by “doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.” The eugenicist reasoning for these human rights violations remained the same as ever, based in social control and the “breeding out” of defective traits. Survivors of the program “maintain that prison medical staff coerced the women, targeting those deemed likely to return to prison in the future.”
Between 1929 and 1973, North Carolina forcibly sterilized nearly 7,600 people, a majority of them Black women. (From 1950 to 1966, the sterilization rate for Black women was more than three times that of white women, and over 12 times that of white men.) The state has the dubious distinction of maintaining the only eugenics program where social workers were allowed to file petitions—with a 95 percent approval rate—recommending their clients for hysterectomies. Nonconsensual sterilization of Black women was so common in North Carolina and across the South that it was called a "Mississippi appendectomy,” because, as one historian states, doctors “would tell women they needed to get their appendix out, but then sterilize them."
Justifications for forced sterilizations in North Carolina records cited in recent record reviews include a 21-year-old mother of six who showed “no effort to curb her sexual desires and is very promiscuous with numerous suitors”; a 32-year-old childless woman described as “oversexed”; a 1947 note that reads, “she wears men's clothing all [the] time.” The youngest person targeted by the state’s program was a mere 9 years old. Rutgers historian Johanna Schoen writes that “more than one-third of those sterilized were not even of legal age to buy a drink or vote, let alone give consent to their sterilization.”
North Carolina is often cited for its reproductive abuses of Black women because, along with Virginia, it recognized and paid survivors of its forced sterilization program under the 2015 Eugenics Compensation Act. But these violations of Black women’s health and bodily autonomy took place across the South. Civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer was forcibly sterilized in Mississippi’s Sunflower County hospital after checking-in for minor surgery to remove a uterine tumor in 1961.
“In the North Sunflower County Hospital, I would say about six out of the 10 Negro women that go to the hospital are sterilized with the tubes tied,” Hamer testified in 1965.
Black women weren't the only targets of these programs. Though the numbers aren’t fully clear because of poor record keeping, a 2010 study found that “as many as 25 to 50 percent of Native American women in America were sterilized between 1970 and 1976.” Many of those women were coerced into procedures by medical staff working for the Indian Health Service. Between the passage of its forced sterilization law in 1937 and the '70s, roughly one-third of all women of child bearing age in Puerto Rico were forcibly sterilized under a program instituted by federal and local Puerto Rican officials.
These programs heaped systemic violence upon Black and other nonwhite women, demonstrating the U.S.’s consistent violation of reproductive rights in service of racist ends. The ICE project–a literal crime against humanity according to the International Criminal Court at The Hague–is America reapplying itself to an undertaking of aspirational whiteness. It is a continuance of efforts to eradicate perceived assaults on and threats to white supremacy by an administration, led nominally by Donald Trump along with white nationalist Stephen Miller, that has made its intentions clear.
"If you are sterilizing someone," says University of Southern California Historian William Deverell, "you are saying, if not to them directly, ‘Your possible progeny are unassimilable, and we choose not to deal with that.’”