So when new allegations emerged about conditions in ICE custody, she says, it wasn’t hard to make a connection.
“The story gained so much traction immediately with people, because there’s such a long history affecting many different racial and ethnic groups, across many institutions — mental health hospitals, public hospitals, prisons,” she says.
As details emerge, Molina and other scholars say they see this week’s allegations as the latest chapter in a long and troubling history.
The history of forced sterilization in the US dates back more than a century
“This could be seen as a recent episode in a much longer trajectory of sterilization abuse and reproductive injustice,” says Alexandra Minna Stern, a professor and associate dean at the University of Michigan.
Indiana passed the world’s first eugenics sterilization law in 1907. And from there, Stern says, 31 other US states followed suit.
“Under those laws, about 60,000 people were sterilized in procedures that we would qualify today as being compulsory, forced, involuntary, and under the justifications that the people who were being sterilized were unfit to reproduce,” she says.
The laws, which led to officials ordering sterilizations of people they deemed “feeble-minded” or “mentally defective,” later became models for Nazi Germany.
Lawmakers are invoking this history as they call for an investigation
Alan Kraut, an immigration historian and professor at American University, says he sees parallels with the past in the recent accusations. But just because something happened historically, he says, doesn’t mean it’s happening now.
“Without evidence I really hesitate to say, ‘Yeah, they’re probably doing sterilizations just the way they used to do in the 1920s.’ I’m not willing to say that. … That’s really a heavy-duty accusation,” he says. “And I think we should all be asking, is there any evidence of this? Not just rumor, not just he said-she said, but an investigation. There needs to be an investigation of who’s been mistreated, how they’ve been mistreated, and whether or not there’s anything to this, because it is extremely, extremely serious.”
There have been more recent sterilizations, too
“In that case, a whistleblower much like today came forward with evidence that Latinas were being tricked, coerced, and forced into sterilization,” she wrote. “Much like today’s case…the women often had little to no grasp of English, leaving them vulnerable to coercion.”
This history was already on scholars’ minds before the recent allegations came up
Molina says the coronavirus pandemic already had a lot of scholars thinking about this history recently, even before the whistleblower’s complaint.
“Many of us have been thinking about this history recently as we start thinking about who’s going to get the (Covid-19) vaccine,” she says, “and are communities of color going to be trusting the government?”
“That is another way in which we see the government abusing medical power, medical ethics, and seeing certain populations as more disposable,” Molina says.
“What was done cannot be undone, but we can end the silence,” he said. “We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye, and finally say, on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful and I am sorry.”
Awareness about forced sterilization has grown, but a lot of people still don’t know about it
Some states in recent years have issued apologies for forced sterilizations, and awareness about the practice in the US has grown. But Stern says the history still isn’t taught in many schools or as widely known as it should be.
“One reason is that many of these sterilizations took place in institutions that again had no accountability. … All of this was happening behind closed doors. People weren’t necessarily aware of it,” she says. “People who were subjects to this sterilization, many of the survivors still to this day find it so painful and hard to talk about that experience, it’s so marked with shame and secrecy for them, that it’s not like they’re writing long confessionals about it. But some have.”
“She was subjected to what she called the ‘Mississippi appendectomy,'” Stern says, “where young Black women were taken into local clinics and sterilized. … That was really a motivating factor to her in her activism.”
Stern says learning — and sharing — this history is important.
“It’s important to know that America was profoundly shaped by the Eugenics Movement. … The legacies continue to play out and the lessons have not been learned,” she says. “It’s an integral part of understanding the history of inequality in the United States, and how social ideas can be twisted to promote dehumanization.”