WASHINGTON—While she was incarcerated, Kelli Dillon was treated for an abnormal pap smear with surgery. While Wendy Dowe was detained at the Irwin County immigration detention center in rural Georgia, she was told she needed surgery to remove large cysts and masses that were causing her menstrual cramps.
Susan Parker (name changed) was a 16 year old with an intellectual disability. Her mother took her to get a procedure at a hospital.
All three women underwent forced sterilization, only learning the painful reality of what happened years later.
Black women have been undergoing forced sterilizations since the birth of the eugenics movement in the 1930s. This movement by White elites was designed to reduce America’s “ills,” including poverty, crime, and “feeblemindedness” by socially engineering a better population. Eugenics desired racial perfection by eliminating most immigrants, Blacks, Indigenous people, poor Whites, and people with disabilities.
“Forced sterilization continues today, many times undercover,” said a District of Columbia public health nurse, who preferred to stay unidentified in exchange for an honest opinion. “Girls who are mentally challenged are offered the birth control pill as early as 14 years old. They don’t need their parents’ permission to receive it. Many refuse to take it. When they don’t take it, and they get pregnant, the next step is forced sterilization,” she told The Final Call.
In Ms. Parker’s case, her mother went to a judge and asked permission to get her daughter sterilized. The judge agreed that sterilization was in the best interests for Ms. Parker.
That’s all it takes in some states.
No one told Ms. Parker that she would be sterilized. The doctor said she was getting a different procedure. It was not until she tried to have a baby a few years later that she found out that she could not.
“Forced sterilization laws are not an aberration—they are part of a larger, horrifying system that prevents disabled people from making basic decisions about their lives, their families, and their futures,” commented Ma’ayan Anafi, National Women’s Law Center senior counsel of health equity and justice and the author of a report, “Forced Sterilization of Disabled People in the United States.”
“These laws are part of a long history of state-sanctioned sterilizations and are rooted in false, paternalistic assumptions about disabled people. No judge, guardian, or politician should have the right to take away anyone’s fundamental right to decide whether to have children. It’s long overdue to fully transform this ruthless system.”
This report, released with help from the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network, exposes laws in 31 states and Washington, D.C., that allow for disabled people to be permanently sterilized against their will. It was released earlier this year.
The report found Black disabled women are more likely to be sterilized than White disabled women and states continue to pass forced sterilization laws. The most recent laws were passed in 2019 in Iowa and Nevada.
Ms. Dowe learned after she was deported to Jamaica that her uterus was healthy, not swollen with enlarged masses and cysts. However, she did have small naturally developed cysts that usually do not require surgery.
Her case came to national attention when Dawn Wooten, a nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center, filed a whistle blower complaint in 2020. Ms. Dowe was among several women detainees at the center that Ms. Wooten noticed were sterilized without understanding or consenting to the procedures.
She was quoted in a legal complaint saying, “Everybody he (the doctor) sees has a hysterectomy—just about everybody. He’s even taken out the wrong ovary on a young lady (detained immigrant woman). She 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.”
“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. These immigrant women, I don’t think they really, totally, all the way understand this is what’s going to happen depending on who explains it to them,” said Ms. Wooten.
Kelli Dillon’s story is one of 1,400 women sterilized while incarcerated in California between 1997 and 2013. She went to get treated for an abnormal pap smear and found out years later that she couldn’t have children.
In 2006, she became the first survivor of forced sterilization to sue the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for damages.
She lost in court, but her case motivated future investigations that found between 2006 and 2010, at least 148 pregnant women received tubal ligations shortly after giving birth while incarcerated at two California prisons.
Ms. Dillon’s story and others are told in the 2020 documentary “Belly of the Beast.” The movie details what the Center for Investigative Reporting found was happening at the Central California Women’s Facility, the world’s largest women’s prison. The Department of Corrections encouraged sterilizations of pregnant women as a cost-effective measure of birth control.
In 2014, California banned coerced sterilizations as a means of birth control in prisons. In 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a provision that provided an estimated $25,000 in reparations to each of the hundreds of living survivors of those sterilizations. Kelli Dillon is one of those survivors. The state budget designated $7.5 million for reparations to survivors.
According to state records between 1909 and 1979, the state sanctioned forced or involuntary sterilization of roughly 20,000 mostly Black, Latino and Indigenous women who were incarcerated or in state institutions for disabilities.
Last year California joined North Carolina and Virginia in awarding reparations for the victims of state’s eugenics forced sterilizations programs.