By Mikayla Chadwick
The headlines may have shocked the world, but the forced sterilisation of immigrants in detention centres is not new, nor should it be surprising.
The Irwin Country Detention Center (ICDC), a prison facility that detains immigrants in Georgia, has been subject to complaints about human rights violations for many years. This month, whistleblower Dawn Wooten, a former nurse at ICDC, has made allegations of improper medical treatment, detailed in a report by Project South. According to Ms Wooten, hysterectomies are being performed on unwilling women at ICDC, who have no access to translation services and did not give their consent to the sterilisation procedure.
As Wooten herself suffers from sickle cell disease and is thus vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus, the alarm has been raised concerning the lack of policy to protect inmates and staff from the pandemic. Wooten “was told not to tell officers that there were detainees that they dealt with day in and day out that were positive.”
“Only God is taking care of us here”, reported a detained migrant at ICDC. The unidentified complainant’s statement was verified by another detainee who asserted “The medical unit is not helpful at all, even if you are dying”, after being subjected to improper medical care and neglectful treatment upon requesting medical care for her breast cancer four times and waiting more than two weeks without seeing a doctor. According to Ms Wooten, “it was common practice for the sick call nurse to shred medical request forms from detained immigrants”, condemning them to weather their illness, no matter how severe.
Explanations ranged from “a small twenty-minute procedure done drilling three small holes in her stomach to drain the cyst” to “receiving a hysterectomy to have her womb removed”.
Lorelei Williams, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, stated to The Intercept that ICDC appears to “fail to provide basic medical care, necessary lifesaving treatments, and the resources needed to protect detained migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic”. The failure to care for people locked in immigration prisons is depressingly becoming a global trend. This trend is contextualised by historical medical neglect towards ‘othered’ Americans.
Many examples of women being subjected to heinous treatment were littered throughout Wooten’s testimony. A terrifying example is of one detained immigrant who reported to Project South that she experienced a near-miss of the doctor now termed “The Uterus Collector”. The woman “felt like they were trying to mess with my body”, after being transferred between the unit, an ambulance, the hospital and back to the detention centre, receiving three different accounts of what procedure was scheduled to be performed on her body. Explanations ranged from “a small twenty-minute procedure done drilling three small holes in her stomach to drain the cyst” to “receiving a hysterectomy to have her womb removed”. After receiving a positive COVID-19 test result, the woman had no operations performed.
“The Uterus Collector” has been identified by Prism as gynaecologist Mahendra Amin. Dr Amin is based in Douglas, Georgia and affiliated with Coffee Regional Medical Center and Irwin County Hospital in Georgia. Wooten, who did not identify Amin by name in her report, stated: “I’ve had several inmates tell me that they’ve been to see the doctor and they’ve had hysterectomies and they don’t know why they went or why they’re going.”
Wooten also told Project South the despondent story of an inmate who fell victim to Dr Amin. The woman “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”.
Forced hysterectomies and a neglect of the duty of care to inmates must be contextualised within a broad and alarming history of forced sterilisation within America. According to journalist Moira Donegan, “everything the Nazis knew about eugenics, they learned from the United States”. In her report, Donegan detailed a series of engineered mass sterilisations of African American women, ignited by the Buck v Bell supreme court case in 1927.
Further, in the 1960s and 1970s, medical officials in the U.S. “decided that approximately a quarter of Native American women were unfit to have children, and sterilized them”. North Carolina’s eugenics program victimised 7,600 women, subjecting them to forced sterilisation until 1977.
I have my own story of medical practitioners neglecting their patients, proving the same mindset is not strictly an American problem. Last year, I had pains in my stomach on a holiday at the beach. I returned to Melbourne, panicked, and immediately saw a GP. They told me to go into the emergency room, where I waited six hours to see a doctor. In those six hours, I was vomiting from severe pain. I was repeatedly told I had appendicitis. I wanted to wait for an ultrasound to confirm this diagnosis but was told that ultrasounds are not available over the weekend. Two days later I was pressured into surgery to remove my appendix, and the last thing I said before losing consciousness on the operating table, was “this is not my appendix, it’s my ovaries.” I waited three months to find out that it was not my appendix that was causing me pain, but a burst cyst on my ovary. I sat in the follow-up room and cried, realising they had operated on me to remove my appendix unnecessarily, and a feeling of grief washed over me while I processed the fact that I had been right all along.
Female autonomy in the medical landscape is undermined in public hospitals in Australia, and Immigration Detention Centres in America. What is concerning, is that a detained woman has even fewer rights to speak for herself and cannot decide what she consents to when the information given to her is not in her own language. Prism claims that every woman they spoke to in ICDC had not been appointed a translator when being consulted for medical treatment.
We like to believe that we have come a long way from enslavement and Nazi medical experiments, yet it takes the strength of a whistleblower like Dawn Wooten to remind us that we have not.
This article was originally published on The Big Smoke.
Mikayla Chadwick is a Melbourne-based freelance writer, focused on human and legal rights, global affairs and popular culture. Mikayla holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree and is currently completing a research degree in sex work policy reform. To read more from Mikayla, check out her website: mikaylachadwick.com.
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