For too long, Black and Brown women’s reproductive rights have been harmed by institutions and governments. The U.S.’ long history of human rights abuses stemming from the forced sterilization of women of color provides an important context for the recent ICE cases.
For example, in the 19th century, Dr. James Marion Sims, considered the “father of modern gynecology,” developed and perfected his Stop Forced Sterilization surgical techniques by conducting deadly operations on enslaved Black women without either consent or anesthesia. In Puerto Rico — where, as many as one-third of women were impelled to undergo involuntary sterilization between the 1930s and 1970s — women were used as subjects for initial trials of oral contraceptive pills without knowing that the drug was experimental or receiving any safety information. In the 1960s and 1970s, forced sterilizations were conducted by the U.S. Indian Health Service (IHS) on Native American women, and by the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center on Mexican women.
Fertility control measures were often driven by the belief that poverty stems from low-income individuals’ birth rates. This view was held by many prominent U.S. officials and intellectuals in the 19th and 20th century. Pseudo-scientific eugenics theories were embraced as a rationale for encouraging only able-bodied, rich, white people to reproduce.
Forced sterilization removes a person’s ability to reproduce — usually permanently and irreversibly. Performing a hysterectomy that is unwanted or lacks fully informed consent is an act of assault and a human rights abuse. For decades, NWHN has advocated against this practice. It violates numerous individual rights, including the rights to dignity, humane treatment, health, reproduction, medical information, privacy, and to freely decide the number and spacing of one’s children.
Regional (i.e., Europe, Africa, etc.) and international human rights courts are increasingly addressing forced sterilization as a human rights violation and highlighting how the practice disproportionately affects marginalized groups. Several treaty bodies include forced sterilization as a form of human rights abuse.
For example, the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the world’s primary document on women’s equality, affirms women’s reproductive rights. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has ruled that forced sterilization violates women’s human rights. Among the members of the United Nations, only the U.S. Iran, Somalia, Sudan, and a few Small Island nations have yet to ratify CEDAW. We have several opportunities to address this problem, however.
First, according to his Agenda for Women, President Biden will seek U.S. ratification of CEDAW. The Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee has debated ratification of CEDAW several times, but the full Senate has refused to ratify it, in part due to unfounded fears that CEDAW will increase abortion and prostitution, and undermine U.S. sovereignty.
Second, Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Representative Adam Smith (D-WA), and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act of 2019 (H.R.2415/ S.1243). The Act condemns performance of unwanted and/or unnecessary medical procedures on individuals without their informed consent. It further recognizes the need for additional accountability, oversight, and transparency to protect individuals from these medical procedures while in ICE custody. Finally, the Act calls on the Department of Homeland Security to fully cooperate with investigations about, and take other actions related to, medical procedures in its detention centers. The NWHN will encourage and advocate for the Act (or similar legislation) to be introduced in the 117th Congress.
We must hold the new administration to these plans and continue to advocate for women’s human rights to be protected. Sign up for the NWHN’s e-alerts to find out more about actions to protect the human rights of immigrant women.
M. Isabelle Chaudry, J.D., is the Senior Policy Manager for the NWHN and an advocate for marginalized communities of women. Isabelle actively lobbies and provides expert testimony before Congress and the FDA for women’s health and cosmetic policies. She is an LL.M candidate in International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law and a Board Member for Women’s Voices for the Earth.