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As Long As American Settler Colonialism Exists, Forced Sterilizations Will Too

Forced sterilizations are the bedrock of settler-colonial nation-states and are required to maintain violences against Black and Indigenous peoples.

It hasn’t even been a month since ICE made the news for being a genocidal and racist institution, and yet, here we are again. This time, whistleblower Dawn Wooten revealed that an ICE facility in Georgia was performing non-consensual hysterectomies on detained migrant women. If this story sounds familiar, it’s because the United States has a rich history of using gynecological procedures to traumatize, sterilize, and continue genocide against Black and Indigenous people.

Settler colonialism is by definition perpetuated and maintained by genocide, which includes the total control of a person’s reproductive abilities. To ensure the strength and longevity of settler-colonizers, it is necessary to nurture and perfect the oppression of those deemed threats to the white supremacist majority. Thus, old and new iterations of settler colonialism are recycled, born, and transformed. 

“Stop forced sterilization” by Rachael Romero , San Francisco Poster Brigade, 1977.

You’ve likely heard this discussion of transformation when it comes to police reform. The police state is exceedingly gifted at reforming itself into new, yet equally damaging systems of oppression. This transformation is the exact reason why we can’t vote out fascism or expect a new administration to suddenly end what the legacy of the United States has always been. The Democrats aren’t calling to abolish ICE. They don’t want to ban fracking (on land that should be returned to Indigenous people anyways). Their agenda is to maintain this settler colony, but “gentler.” There is nothing gentle about this country. 

This is the same country where enslaved Black women—who were disabled due to sexual and reproductive violence—were experimented on (without anesthesia) in order for a white doctor (J. Marion Sims) to eventually make gynecological breakthroughs he would only use to help delicate white women (with anesthesia). This man invented the speculum, but birth control and ovarian cancer treatment were both also made possible for white women through the exploitation of people of color. The legacies of these horrors continue to this day. Black people are still not treated for their pain in the same way white people are. Their treatable diseases (fibroids, cervical cancer) are left unnoticed and their outcomes in childbirth are significantly worse. All of these things contribute to the systemic genocide of Black and Indigenous people in this country. 

RECOMMENDED: Prison Abolition is a Key Component of Reproductive Freedom

This is the same country that gave widespread credibility to the eugenics movement, which later inspired Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Eugenics popularized (through “science”) the idea that blond-haired, blue-eyes, cis, hetero, non-disabled people were superior to all others. Proponents of Eugenics argued that those were the people who should procreate with one another, making sure to avoid anyone who was outside of this norm. As such, it became legal in more than 25 states to sterilize people against their will if they did not fit into this mold. There were at least 60,000 people sterilized in the United States during this time. The legality of practices like this one shows that what is moral is definitely not always the same as what is legal. Though these sterilizations were allegedly meant to stop, locking people away in prisons, jails, detention centers, and psychiatric facilities still robs them of their reproductive freedoms, just in a different way—one where carcerality is viewed as a legitimate solution, something that is second-nature to the American settler-colonial psyche. 

More recently, at least 39 incarcerated women in California were found to have undergone a tubal ligation procedure without their consent. It’s important to note that this happened under a Democratic president, governor, and senators. This, as well as the historical use of sterilization on people who were suspected to be criminals, shows that incarceration doesn’t end or reduce sexual violence. It increases it. As we’re witnessing over and over again, genocidal white supremacist tactics do not go away. They transform—and sometimes they reappear as a new iteration of the same horror. 

How many more people have to be forcibly sterilized at the hands of the state until we realize there is no amount of investigations, prosecutions, and empty promises that will prevent it from happening again? We must acknowledge that this is the status quo and that this type of violence is what maintains the United States. That’s why rich, white people hold on so strongly to these death-making institutions. They know that their abolition would signal the eventual abolition of the United States—and that terrifies them far more than what is happening to migrants at ICE detention centers. 

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Reina Sultan is a Lebanese-American Muslim freelance journalist and one of the co-creators of 8 to Abolition. She is a PIC abolitionist and anarcha-feminist working to dismantle systems of white supremacist cisheteronormative patriarchy. Her work can also be found in VICE, Bitch, ZORA, Greatist, Teen Vogue, and more. Follow @SultanReina on Twitter for hot takes and cat photos.

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