Women testify about being forcibly sterilized in "Belly of the Beast." Photo courtesy Belly of the Beast movie.

Eugenics is still happening in the U.S. under the direction of medical authority. It’s a pseudoscientific excuse for unethical, racist, or even genocidal practices such as involuntary sterilization. Most recently, Dawn Wooten, a nurse working in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Ocilla, Georgia, filed a complaint about alleged medical neglect and a high number of hysterectomies performed on women. According to the complaint, the surgical procedure, which removes all or part of the uterus, was performed on mainly Spanish-speaking immigrants, many of whom did not appear to understand why they had undergone the procedure. This cruelty isn’t isolated to ICE healthcare systems; it’s known to mimic that of the American prison industry.  

The Belly of The Beast by Peabody and Emmy Award-winning director and producer Erika Cohn seeks to uncover the reproductive injustice of women in the criminal justice system. “When I first found out that [forced sterilization] was happening in 2010, it screamed eugenics to me,” Cohn said. “I learned about this genocide that was happening through imprisonment, through forced sterilization. I knew that I wanted to get involved.” 

The documentary, shot over the span of 10 years, follows Kelli Dillon’s story, a Black woman who underwent coercive sterilization while incarcerated in the Central California Women’s Facility. Her fight to pass a bill banning these sterilizations and providing reparations to survivors along with protections for whistleblowers has continued for decades. Dillon is now the founder of Back to Basics, a community empowerment organization, and an activist advocating for survivors of sexual and domestic violence. 

“We are in a war and we’ve been at war for quite some time, and these are some of the strategies of war, which is to suppress the people to keep them from procreating to control the numbers,” Dillon said. 

While incarcerated at the age of 24, she was told that she needed to have a cyst removed. Months later, she started experiencing menopausal symptoms and lost an extreme amount of weight. She found out that the surgeon had not only removed the cyst, but had given her a hysterectomy without her knowledge of the procedure. The mother of two toddlers at the time was told she would not be able to give birth to more children. Now she shares perhaps the most difficult part of her life in The Belly of The Beast, not as a victim, but as a survivor. The film is a major step to bringing greater awareness to an issue that has gone mostly unchecked for too long at the expense of women of color’s lives.

“We keep saying, no justice, no peace. But we are talking about centuries of attacks, murder, discrimination, oppression, and sterilization,” Dillon said. “This film is a battleground,” she adds. 

In 2006, Dillon became the first survivor to sue the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for damages. Sadly, she did not win her case. However, her story caught the attention of The Center for Investigative Reporting, which reported that over 148 pregnant women received tubal ligations after giving birth while at two California prisons between 2006 and 2010. The majority of these women were Black and Latinx. These alarming statistics helped to bring validity to Dillon’s story. 

Cohn first learned about Dillon’s story through Cynthia Chandler, a prison industrial complex abolitionist, attorney, and co-founder of Justice Now. Chandler invited her to become a volunteer for Justice Now, first editing campaign videos for the organization, and later a volunteer legal advocate, providing direct service needs for over 150 people in California’s women’s prisons. During this time, Chandler was working on Dillon’s case, who recounts initial reactions when her testimony was first shared. 

“Even bringing up the topic made people presume that we were disturbed, conspiracy theorists, heretics, or wacky people,” Chandler said. “That combined with the fact that we were specifically talking about the abuse of Black women. Who we were advocating on behalf of rendered us even less credible.” 

In 2014, California’s Sterilization Compensation Bill was finally passed. “Kelli’s story had rippling effects and inspired a whole generation of health activists inside of the women’s prisons,” Chandler said, adding that there is clearly more work to be done. While the law requires local jails and state prisons to report surgeries and provide whistleblower protection, its carefully negotiated language allowed the state to escape further responsibility for their actions. 

Figuring how many women have undergone coercive sterilization is challenging, Chandler notes. “You’d have to find someone who’s had surgery, maybe shows some symptoms, find their medical records, and look into it,” she continued. According to a 2019 report by The Prison Policy Initiative, the population of incarcerated women has grown at twice the pace of men’s incarceration in recent decades. However, the data needed to explain exactly what happened, when, and why does not yet exist. The lack of resources, attention, and interest surrounding women’s incarceration continues to allow for state-sponsored abuses. 

“Reparations for me would really truly look like California, standing up and saying we did this, we practiced this, we are responsible for this. Today, we are saying that this is no longer acceptable. We will no longer continue to act or behave in this manner,” Dillon said. “Religious people talk about repentance, true repentance to me is the idea that you acknowledge your behavior and you make a complete turn from it. Never to repeat those things again,” she continued. 

Unfortunately, the reparations bills that would provide victims $25,000 in the settlement are stalled due to COVID-19. The coalition has submitted a separate budget request that would release the funds, but that request, too, has been pushed to August due to the pandemic.

“We are witnessing systemic racism on top of population control through imprisonment, through the immigration detention system, and through lack of access to health care during this pandemic, these injustices call for immediate accountability,” Cohn said. “In light of the sterilization in the ICE detention facility in Georgia, it really is about a legacy of forced sterilization. It’s really about the forced legacy of eugenics in the United States.” 

The film is a major step to bringing greater awareness to an issue that has gone mostly unchecked for too long at the expense of women of color’s lives. 

Watch Belly of the Beast in theaters or through virtual cinemas.

Priscilla Ward is a Washington, D.C.-based writer, running enthusiast, music lover, currently dreaming of her next international travel destination post quarantine. She's also the founder of BLCKNLIT.