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We Have to Talk About the Ugly History of Eugenics and Medical Racism

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Our Ugly History of Eugenics and Gynecological Medical Abuses of Marginalized People

I was so sick to my stomach when I heard that migrant women were being sterilized and/or assaulted by a gynecologist at private prison LaSalle Corrections’ Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia that I could only read headlines of the story for a week. I just could not take it. For Black women like myself, this is reminiscent of Dr. J. Marion Sims. He was a gynecologist in the 1840s who performed experimental surgeries on Black enslaved women without anesthesia and without their consent. Or the time of eugenics, when people of color among others were systematically sterilized.

Has nothing changed? Are women of color still pawns in a white man’s world?

In Irwin County Detention Center in rural Georgia, women have alleged they have been subjected to gynecological procedures they were not fully aware of and they did not give active consent. Some of the women have obtained lawyers and they are investigating along with a congressional committee and the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General. The government and the detention center managers maintain that, “in general, anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve.”

History of This Type of Malfeasance

In the 1840s, enslaved people were considered property and could be bought and sold at will. Owners did whatever they wanted to with their property, with no regard for human rights. Some have come out and defended Dr. Sims and stated that he may have owned the women, but they were eager for treatment and he later used the women as assistants. Sims went on to be a prolific author for journals and other publications and described the women’s roles as consensual. He was proud of the work he did with the women, but it is not clear, from my reading, that they were ever compensated for these breakthroughs. Perhaps most telling is the fact that although anesthesia was somewhat available, he failed to use it on the Black women, demonstrating no concern for their pain and agony. But when he began doing the procedures on White women, he used anesthesia.

Dr. Sims stated in defense of his actions:

“For this purpose [therapeutic surgical experimentation] I was fortunate in having three young healthy colored girls given to me by their owners in Alabama, I agreeing to perform no operation without the full consent of the patients, and never to perform any that would, in my judgment, jeopard life, or produce greater mischief on the injured organs — the owners agreeing to let me keep them (at my own expense) till I was thoroughly convinced whether the affection could be cured or not.” — Sims, J. M. Two cases of vesicovaginal fistula, cured. NY Med Gazette J Health 185451–7

I see no evidence that he had meaningful consent from the people who were enslaved. How could they have possibly said no? What were they to say when approached about these experimental procedures? They could have been whipped or killed with no consequence for Dr. Sims. He was a monster and should be remembered as such.

Eugenics and Forced Sterilizations of Marginalized People

Eugenics, the set of beliefs and practices which aims at improving the genetic quality of the human population, played a significant role in the history and culture of the United States during the Progressive Era, from the late 19th century until US involvement in World War II.”

Even our current President is using the eugenics “dog whistle” of “good genes” in his speeches. He used it four times to describe his audience at a rally in Minnesota. He said “You have good genes, you know that, right? You have good genes. A lot of it is about the genes, isn’t it, don’t you believe? The racehorse theory? You think we are so different. You have good genes in Minnesota.” He is communicating to a mostly White Anglo-Saxon group of ralliers that they have “good genes” and are superior, and others not in their group are inferior and should be treated as such. It is no wonder that his administration, which has continually persecuted immigrants, dismisses claims of any abuses at the detention centers.

This is a shame and should be stopped.

Others have experimented on and exploited those who are not in power. At one time, 32 states had laws on the books allowing for sterilizations of those who were considered poor, people of color, mentally ill, so-called “imbeciles” and the incarcerated. Society thought of these people as undesirable and not worthy of reproducing, or that it was not safe to allow them to procreate since they would just create more of “their kind.” If I had been born in those times, I could have been sterilized.

This is an irrevocable stain on our nation’s history. There is no common decency in sterilization against someone’s will. They were mutilated without consent just because they were disabled, poor, people of color or supposed criminals.

Why is this happening?

This is an abomination as far as I am concerned. The women in detention are being treated like those mutilated by Dr. Sims over 150 years ago. They are treated as undesirables. I believe those in power have the express intention to sterilize these women so they cannot produce any more children and continue to flood our borders. I cannot see another motive to justify these actions.

We must all stand up for these women. No matter the reason they are in this country, they deserve to be treated with dignity and their rights should be honored. It is against international law in some countries (the United States exempted itself) to commit sterilization on a specific population of people. These are human rights violations of epic proportions.

I will commit to follow this story and do all the advocating I can do to see that these human rights violations are stopped. I will also do my own work to counter the hate speech around those who supposedly do not have “good genes.” We cannot take these abuses lying down. The future of our democracy depends on it.

Getty image by Digicom Photo.

Originally published: October 15, 2020
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