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Rutgers professor speaks on allegations of medical abuse, unwanted hysterectomies in ICE detention facility

Kristyn Brandi, an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Health at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said allegations related to unwanted hysterectomies go against the medical profession's core and that it is essential for patients to have a say in what happens to their body. – Photo by Flickr

Alleged medical abuses and unwanted hysterectomies at a U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility have recently gained national attention. Kristyn Brandi, an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Health at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, discussed these allegations and what they mean for the medical community.

The allegations began when Dawn Wooten, a nurse that worked at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, filed a whistleblower complaint on Sept. 14, which highlighted the medical abuse she witnessed at the facility, according to an article on NPR.

The complaint alleges multiple forms of abuse, including a suspicious rate of hysterectomies.

Other allegations include refusal to test detained immigrants for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), shredding medical requests from detainees, fabricating medical records, allowing symptomatic employees awaiting test results to work, hiding information about who has tested positive, allowing transfers of detainees who have tested positive and overall unsanitary conditions.

“It is alleged that several patients have undergone procedures that affect their fertility, including hysterectomies, against their knowledge and consent,” Brandi said. “Some people are said to have had surgery where another surgery was done at the same time that they did not consent for.”

One detained immigrant recently said that she spoke to five different women detained at the facility between October and December 2019 who had hysterectomies done, according to the complaint. These women reportedly reacted confused when explaining why they had the procedure done.

Brandi said that this is not the first time allegations of medical abuses like these have occurred. 

“The medical community has a long sordid history of forced sterilizations in vulnerable patients, particularly (Black) and (Brown) people, those with disabilities and people that are incarcerated,” she said. “While there have been lots of work to improve the system so patients are aware of the procedures they are consenting to, it is troubling to hear that this is still happening, particularly to those in ICE custody.”

Allegations concerning unwanted hysterectomies, past and present, go against the medical profession’s core, Brandi said. The principle of autonomy is essential and patients should have the say of what happens to their body, she said. 

“No person should undergo a procedure that they are not 100 percent on board with,” Brandi said. “Particularly as a reproductive health provider, patients should always have the ability to become pregnant or not become pregnant based on their own values, not ones placed on them by physicians.”

Brandi said that as a reproductive healthcare provider, specifically one that uses a reproductive justice framework, it is a disgusting sight to see another provider behave this way. 

“And as a physician from a Puerto Rican background, I think it is harmful to further perpetuate a history of coerced procedures on these vulnerable communities,” Brandi said.

She also said this current situation shows a greater picture of what is happening in the country.

“Unfortunately ICE is detaining people seeking asylum from terrible situations in their home country,” Brandi said. “To have these people treated in this way is inhumane and shows how we value people seeking a better life in this country.”

One way for the alleged medical abuses to be stopped is to abolish the ICE system, Brandi said. It has not been shown to improve outcomes for those seeking asylum, and if it stays, changes have to be made, she said. 

“If ICE remains, there needs to be improved access to patient-centered care in these systems,” Brandi said. “Regardless of the care they need, we need to be making sure they are seeing providers that will be able to care for them and provide things like translation services so patients can make informed decisions about their healthcare.”

Brandi said it is important for people to understand that these medical abuses are unacceptable and healthcare providers should not be making decisions for patients without their informed consent.

Also, she said it seems these abuses are being targeted at a vulnerable community which has to stop. Brandi urges other doctors and healthcare professionals to stand up against this behavior.

“Regardless of incarceration status, patients should be able to make decisions around their health,” she said. “I salute Nurse Wooten for speaking up against this unjust practice.”

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