My Solidarity Vigil for the Immigrant Women Sterilized in Georgia

by Heather Rosewarne

When I heard the news on September 21 that immigrant women at Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia had their reproductive organs removed without consent, I was horrified then angry. I had spent the previous day in a conference about systemic racism in healthcare with a specific focus on violence against enslaved women in U.S. history. Currently, immigrants in detention are particularly vulnerable to abuse and neglect, but the reports of the reproductive violence in Georgia are particularly chilling.  

I have lived and worked on the Texas-Mexico border in shelters with immigrant and refugee families. There I heard first-hand stories about people’s migration journeys such as leaving home because there was no work to support their families or because of gang violence in which their lives are threatened. People leave when situations are dire, traveling by foot, on buses or trains, with the hope of better opportunities elsewhere. In general, people flee their countries of origin because of extreme political and social instability, where many endure violence and persecution. Many migrants experience sexual violence along the journey and then suffer abuses while held prisoner in U.S. immigration facilities. Most of these people will be deported without fair legal access. 

Over the last 15 years as a labor and delivery nurse in Seattle, I have cared for people giving birth as well as during emergencies and tragedies. Fundamental healthcare rights include making sure people understand what’s happening during their care, holding space for questions, using medical interpreters, getting consent, and giving access to pain medicine when needed. The fact that none of these basic healthcare rights were given to incarcerated people is heartbreaking. When people are given a consent to sign in medical jargon in a language they don’t understand or are coerced to make a decision by a medical authority, that is not proper informed consent.

Medical abuses at Irwin County Detention Center have been documented for years by Project South. This facility is notorious for obscene living conditions and total disregard of health and safety standards. The negligent way Covid-19 has been handled at Irwin Detention Center among detainees and staff has led to 41 positive COVID-19 cases at the facility (as reported by ICE in August and likely much higher) and several preventable deaths. All this was brought to national attention when a nurse, Dawn Wooten, filed a report of major health concerns and also documented testimonies of a surgeon who was known as “the uterus collector” for sterilizing many women against their will. On September 15, Washington State Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security that was signed by 168 members of Congress. From Congresswoman Jayapal’s investigation, there were a minimum of 17 documented cases of unwarranted, involuntary gynecological surgeries, including hysterectomies, performed on women at this facility. 

These women are primarily Spanish-speaking women who may have seen a physician for reasons such as bleeding or cysts but without their understanding or consent and without an interpreter, they were forcibly sterilized. Advocates fear that these practices are not isolated to one center or one doctor but are part of a widespread system of abuse. Considering the women’s lives are already being destroyed by being locked up and now their future fertility has been stolen without their consent, it makes these actions particularly vicious.

What makes these abuses even more heinous is how they are a continuation of the U.S. medical system’s role in “population control” of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. In the 1900s, the “father of modern gynecology,” J Marion Sims, committed excruciating surgeries on enslaved women, particularly a 17 year old named Inarca. Widespread medical experimentation on Black women was justified by a racist belief that Black people didn’t feel pain. Today African-Americans are still under-treated for pain.

In the 1900s, 32 states passed laws enabling the sterilization of between 60-70 thousand people, focused on minorities, the poor, and disabled. In 1960, the state of Georgia had the fifth highest number of sterilizations in the country. Black Civil Rights Leader Fannie Lou Hamer was among those who sought care for a tumor and had a hysterectomy without consent.

In the 1960s and 70s, 25–50% of Native American women had forced sterilization. Many more were forced to have abortions or had their children forcibly removed from their custody. Today in Seattle, on the native land of the Duwamish people, American Indian and Alaska Natives have the highest rates of maternal mortality.

NPR just released a report about Latinx women sterilized in Los Angeles in the 1970s, featured in the film “No Mas Bebes.” Spanish-speaking women who had emergency cesarean sections at Los Angeles County Hospital had their tubes tied without their understanding or informed medical consent in their language.

In response to the news about Irwin Detention Center, I became activated to do something and organized my first vigil on September 25, an online compassion vigil to honor the immigrant women affected. With just two days notice, fifty people responded to the invitation and gathered in solidarity via Zoom. I shared more details about the conditions at Irwin County Detention Center and also about our nation’s historical context of forced sterilization of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. We were led in a grounding meditation by Katherine Poco-Enders, an Indigenous meditation teacher, and then we ended with a breathing meditation honoring the anger, numbness, and deep sadness that arises in our bodies. Envisioning compassion for those connected by these atrocities, including the women, the medical staff, the guards, the warden, individuals at ICE and DHS, we called on intentions for healing and justice for our national consciousness.

Together we felt the power in pausing to acknowledge the suffering of those subjected to this cruelty and those who perpetrated the violence — and how we are also affected. Keeping our humanity alive by facing the trauma of others is a gift we can offer during these challenging times. Feeling the emotional reality of righteous anger supports resiliency in our nervous system so that we can fight for systemic change. 

The vigil made evident people’s willingness to hear difficult information when held in a mindful space. By facing injustice collectively and not turning away, we’re giving power to light. Together we’re making a choice to stop, to notice, and to choose a different future.

Since the vigil took place, 12 members of the House Judiciary Committee and the Hispanic Caucus travelled to Georgia to hear directly from immigrant women detained at Irwin County Detention Center and to receive testimony from Dawn Wooten about her experiences there. On October 2, The U.S. House of Representatives passed Resolution 1153 condemning the unwanted and unnecessary medical procedures at Irwin County Detention Center, including forced sterilization of women. The resolution calls for a halt to the deportation of anyone who experienced any medical procedure at Irwin and for those who carried out the medical procedures to be held responsible. It also demands full compliance with investigations into the detention centers.

Heather Rosewarne lives in South Seattle with her two daughters and works as a labor & delivery nurse at Virginia Mason Hospital. Her passion for immigrant rights work began 20 years ago when working at Annunciation House in El Paso, TX and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. She is a member of the Mindfulness Community of Puget Sound and is inspired by meditation teachers Dr. Larry Ward, Peggy Rowe-Ward, and Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams who skillfully combine mindfulness and racial justice awakening.

Featured image is attributed to Walrus36 under a CC BY 2.0 license.