5 hysterectomies referred by ICE center, DHS tells Congress

Acting DHS chief Chad Wolf disclosed the details in answers to lawmakers over whistleblower allegations of medical neglect

Chad Wolf, acting  Homeland Security secretary, on Capitol Hill in August. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Chad Wolf, acting Homeland Security secretary, on Capitol Hill in August. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 7, 2020 at 6:04pm

Immigration and Customs Enforcement referred more detainees for hysterectomies at a Georgia facility than previously disclosed, according to a document acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf submitted to a Senate panel.

“It is my current understanding based on ICE data that, since 2017, a total of five individuals at Irwin County Detention Center were referred to certified, credentialed medical professionals at gynecological and obstetrical health care facilities for hysterectomies in compliance with National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) standards, and three hysterectomies were in fact performed,” Wolf wrote in response to questions about a federal complaint that suggested these procedures were being performed unnecessarily and without informed consent.

The answers, viewed by CQ Roll Call, were in response to a question submitted by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., following Wolf’s Sept. 23 nomination hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Harris had asked Wolf, among other things, what percentage of people at the Irwin center received hysterectomies after being referred for other procedures.

“These recommendations were reviewed by the facility clinical authority and approved,” Wolf said. “Decisions related to health care are made by medical providers and not law enforcement personnel.”

The allegations of unwanted hysterectomies come from a Sept. 10 whistleblower’s complaint to the DHS Office of Inspector General that included accounts from detainees and Dawn Wooten, a nurse who had been employed at that ICE facility in Georgia. Contrasting reports have since come out regarding the scope and nature of the allegations.

Dr. Ada Rivera, the medical director of ICE’s Health Service Corps, released a press statement last month saying that only two individuals had been referred for hysterectomies to the gynecologist ICE enlisted for these procedures since 2018. A representative of ERH Healthcare, which operates the Irwin County Hospital where the procedures were conducted, told The Washington Post that only two had been performed at the facility since 2017.

Homeland Security’s inspector general office has since launched an investigation into the allegations and top DHS officials have said their personnel also are reviewing the complaints.

The Irwin County Hospital did not immediately return a call seeking comment. ICE referred to a statement the agency's acting director, Tony Pham, released last month.

“As a former prosecutor, individuals found to have violated our policies and procedures should be held accountable,” he said at the time. “If there is any truth to these allegations, it is my commitment to make the corrections necessary to ensure we continue to prioritize the health, welfare and safety of ICE detainees.”

[House report: Medical neglect, falsified records harmed detained immigrants]

While the investigation is pending, the Georgia medical facility has suspended its relationship with the doctor in question, according to Wolf's response to Congress. 

It’s not clear whether all five referrals were made to the same doctor at Irwin County Hospital.

A delegation of Democrats from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the House Judiciary Committee toured the Georgia facility on Sept. 27, meeting with women who said they had been made to undergo unwanted, invasive procedures. The women complained they had been given pap smears with unsterilized equipment and contraceptive injections without knowing what they were.

After the visit, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., told reporters that she had spoken with eight women "who have been the subject of forced unnecessary procedures, some that include partial or full sterilization others that include invasive reproductive surgeries most often done without consent or knowledge."

The House on Friday adopted a resolution expressing concern over the allegations.

“Let's be clear: Even if a procedure and test is medically necessary, a doctor must have informed consent from their patient,” said Jayapal, who sponsored the measure. “This is the most basic tenet of medical ethics.”

The resolution, which has no impact on law, was adopted by a 232-157 vote, with only seven Republicans voting for it.

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., argued Democrats must “take a step back” and await the results of official investigations underway.

“At this point, we do not have all the facts,” he said. “If the allegations are true, every bit of the indignation expressed in this resolution, and by my colleagues on the Democratic side, would be justified. And a bipartisan Congress would demand and command redress and reform.”