Originally Published in The San Diego Union Tribune
Lisa Deaderick - October 4, 2020
Laura Jimenez, executive director of California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, discusses forced sterilizations and their bigoted history in the U.S.
Forced, coerced or ill-informed sterilizations have a long and ugly history, and relationship with eugenics, in the United States. Vulnerable groups of people have been subjected to experimentation and medical procedures without their consent or knowledge, based on bigoted ideas about what a “desirable” population should look like.
When a nurse at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Georgia filed a complaint last month with the Department of Homeland Security, alleging that female detainees had been subjected to sterilization procedures without their full knowledge, that history came flooding back.
“Reproductive oppression is what reproductive justice is countering, so when we talk about reproductive justice and oppression, we are looking at the legacy in this country of 500-plus years from when colonization started happening in this country,” said Laura Jimenez, executive director of California Latinas for Reproductive Justice. “I think it’s important to talk about who is sterilized coercively, or forcibly, without their consent or even knowledge, because we know that it is consistent with eugenics ‘science’ and that sort of theory.”
Jimenez and CLRJ work to build Latina power and grow Latina leadership in the state, and achieve reproductive justice in California and across the country through policy advocacy, community organizing and community-informed research. Their reproductive justice work is grounded in the belief that all people have the right to make decisions about their reproduction and access to reproductive health services and education; that people have the right to decide to have children and to make those decisions without interference from governments or other systems or institutions; that parents and children have the right to safe and healthy environments free from violence; and that people have the right to bodily autonomy and gender identity, and that those rights be respected.
She took some time to discuss the allegations at the ICE facility in Georgia, the history of forced sterilizations in the U.S., and where they fall within reproductive justice work. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: When the reports of forced sterilizations at the ICE detention facility in Georgiafirst came to light last month, what did this bring to mind for you, particularly as it relates to the work that you do with CLRJ?
A: Honestly, what came to my mind and heart was just pure rage. CLRJ has been involved in this work, particularly around sterilization, since about 2015. We work very closely with the producer and director of “No Más Bebés,” which is the film about the sterilization of Mexican women at the L.A. County-USC Medical Center in the (1960s and) ‘70s. We’ve done a lot of film screenings, and have been able to talk about what the implications of sterilizations are for the populations being targeted, and how that relates to reproductive oppression, to reproductive justice. We’ve also been connected with an organization called Justice Now, which uncovered the prison sterilizations in California prisons in the early 2000s. So, what comes to mind is that, from the time of colonization, the rights of Black and indigenous people of color have been taken away in different forms. Genocide is a form, enslavement is a form, being separated from your family is a form; and what we see now is just the implementation of racist and eugenics practices by the current federal administration. It’s consistent behavior for them. It’s abhorrent and violent, but it’s consistent because they are still holding children in prisons away from their families, and we see that as absolutely a part of this eugenics practice. People think that they can just do these things because this is a population that is vulnerable and doesn’t have a lot of ways of defending itself. I think there’s a systemic failure from education, to institutions, to state and federal government that is ridiculous and dangerous.
Q: Where do these latest forced sterilizations fall within the context of reproductive justice work?
A: Institutions and governments are deciding who they see as fit to reproduce, and I think, in a larger context, who they see as fit to be a part of the citizenry of the country. In this particular context of the sterilizations in the ICE prison in Georgia, clearly, there was not a value placed on the lives of immigrant people there, so their sterilization was not seen as important. Again, they’re seen as disposable people who do not need to have that right, and I think that’s consistent with what we’ve seen here in California prisons. People who are incarcerated are just not thought of, in general, in systems and society at large. They are viewed as disposable, that human rights don’t necessarily apply once you have been sentenced for a crime. Looking further back on the eugenics law in California from 1909 to 1979, and people who were sterilized in state institutions, there was definitely a judgment call being made that if there was a racial component, disability component, class component, that those people were also deemed unworthy or unfit or disposable. Their reproduction was not important.
Q: The United States has a long history of these kinds of medical of violations against people who were arbitrarily found to be “undesirable” for having children — namely, women, girls, people of color, people with disabilities, and people who’d been convicted of crimes. How do these recent reports of forced sterilizations fit into this country’s history with eugenics?
A: I think these recent sterilizations are consistent with the pattern we’ve seen over the last 500 years. Whenever a group happens to be the target of the decade — or the century, or 500 years — that’s the group that’s vulnerable and doesn’t have a lot of defense against these things. When you’re talking about medical procedures, we’re not all physicians, so we don’t all know why we might need to have a surgery and understand it completely. Advocates did an excellent job in the ‘70s of countering these sterilizations and coming up with some really important regulations around sterilization. The fact that governments and institutions continue to ignore these, or decide arbitrarily on their own that certain people don’t have the right to those same regulations that a rich, White woman would have, that’s a problem. That’s an indication of a racist system, of a classist system, of an ableist system.
Q: It seems like these procedures intersect with a number of issues, including racism, xenophobia and misogyny. How do forced sterilizations further marginalize people who are already experiencing a deficit of power compared to other members of society?
A: I think that this question really makes me think about some of the scenes in “No Más Bebés,” and the responses of some of the women who said things like, “My husband and I decided not to tell anybody.” So, there’s shame. There’s sort of a feeling of being othered, or outside of what your own understanding is of yourself as a part of your culture or your community. I also remember, in the film, there was another woman who talked about the friction that the sterilization caused between herself and her husband, and violence in that particular situation. So, I think people are not clear on the kind of trauma that it causes to take away someone’s right to decide if they would like to reproduce, to have children. To take that right away is extremely traumatic and has an effect, not just on the woman, but on the family, the community, a culture. This is where we start to also see issues of distrust of the medical community within certain communities because of experimental testing, because of these kinds of forced sterilizations that people didn’t even know that they had. So how can we build a trust? That further marginalizes certain communities that might not want to comply with treatments that they might need, for diabetes or a heart condition. Or coronavirus. It’s a problem that’s going to continue to perpetuate itself as long as we don’t address the issue and demand accountability from the people and the institutions who are responsible for this.
Q: In some of these conversations about the need for informed consent and a respect for bodily autonomy, the question has been raised about whether consent can truly be possible in places like prisons and immigration detention centers. Can you help us understand the argument being made, that true consent cannot happen under these circumstances, within a reproductive justice framework?
A: In any type of prison — whether it’s a state, county, federal or immigration prison — the people who are incarcerated have none of the power and the people who are the security, the guards, the wardens, the judges, those are the people that have all the power. We’re talking about issues of safety. I would imagine it’s thinking “If I do what I’m being asked to do, will I be able to see my family?” How are those kinds of “privileges” being used? I think when you have people in a carceral setting, there is no true consent for these kinds of procedures. This is why legislation like SB 1135 was written, to prevent further sterilizations in prisons, but we’re not completely sure that those have stopped. So, they’re issues that we have to continue shining a light on so that people, institutions, people in power realize that they’re going to be held accountable for these actions. We cannot determine that some people are deserving of human rights. There’s no deserving or not deserving. They are basic. They’re basic and they are attributed to all persons. Not all persons who are not incarcerated, or all persons who are white. All persons.