In the last few days, a shocking claim has been reported across traditional and social media: that a significant number of women detained by US immigration authorities (ICE) at a centre in Georgia have had all or part of their wombs removed without their “informed consent”.

This tweet, for example, has garnered over 250,000 “likes” at the time of writing:

“A whistleblower at ICE today exposed that mass hysterectomies are being performed on detained immigrants.”

Another, currently with over 50,000 likes, shares an article from the website Law and Crime with the caption: “Whistleblower: There Were Mass Hysterectomies at ICE Facility”.

The headline in Vice News was: “Staggering Number of Hysterectomies Happening at ICE Facility, Whistleblower Says”. That piece alone received over 430,000 Facebook interactions, according to analytics provided by CrowdTangle.

Meanwhile Yahoo News led with, “An ICE Nurse Revealed That A Georgia Detention Center Is Performing Mass Hysterectomies” in an article that has had over 500,000 Facebook interactions.

The allegation has been shared by several senior politicians online.

And 173 members of Congress have signed a letter to the Department for Homeland Security calling for an investigation into the claims. The letter says: “We are horrified to see reports of mass hysterectomies performed on detained women in the facility, without their full, informed consent”.

Many sharing the claim on social media have pointed out that the United States has a history of forced sterilisation of vulnerable people.

Only this year, some of the victims of North Carolina’s Eugenics Board, which forcibly sterilised thousands of its own citizens between 1929 and 1974 – mostly black women and girls – were finally told that the state would begin to pay reparations in October. In all, 30 states passed laws permitting eugenic sterilisation in the twentieth century.

So is that what’s going on in the immigration detention Center in Georgia? From the evidence we’ve seen, the scale of what’s alleged is nothing like as large – the whistleblower in question has claimed an estimated 20 women had hysterectomies over six years at the Center.

The details of the case are still emerging and are now subject to an official inquiry. Let’s take a look at what we know so far.

The source

The story has emerged from a complaint by a group called Project South, an “organization for social justice work in the U.S. South”.

The 27-page report alleges “jarring medical neglect” at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), in part based on testimony by a nurse-turned-whistleblower, Dawn Wooten.

Most of the report centres on claims that ICDC is responsible for a “lack of medical care, unsafe work practices, and absence of adequate protection against COVID-19 for detained immigrants and employees alike”.

Though the part of the report that’s attracted most attention is the passage that “raises red flags regarding the rate at which hysterectomies are performed on immigrant women under ICE custody at ICDC”.

The report relays concerns that these are happening at “high rates” and that women who underwent the procedures “didn’t fully understand why they had to get a hysterectomy”, leading Project South to suggest that there was an issue regarding “informed consent”.

How many women were allegedly affected?

Much of the media and social media coverage of this story has used the term “mass hysterectomies”. But neither the whistleblower nor the Project South report actually uses this phrase in the report – nor the word “staggering”, as in the Vice News headline.

An inmate told Project South in 2019 that “a lot” of women underwent the procedure. Ms Wooten says “several” detainees told her they’d had hysterectomies and that “nearly everybody” who saw a particular gynaecologist offsite had the procedure – though she doesn’t specify in the report how many women he saw.

The only figure in the report on the number of hysterectomies is on page 18, which says that in summer 2020, “a detained immigrant told Project South that she talked to five different women detained at ICDC between October and December 2019 who had a hysterectomy done”.

It wasn’t included in the report, but in an interview with news website, The Intercept, Ms Wooten says she estimates 20 women had hysterectomies at the Center in the past six years.

We have asked Project South and the legal organisation supporting them whether the claimed numbers of hysterectomies had been independently verified, but haven’t received an answer yet.

Update: an earlier version of this article compared the number of hysterectomies alleged by the whistleblower to have taken place at Irwin County Detention Center with the rate in the wider population of US women. However, after discussion with experts, we understand that we do not have sufficient information to make a like-for-like comparison.

What does ICE say?

Dr Ada Rivera, Medical Director of the ICE Health Service Corps, told FactCheck in a statement:

“According to U.S. Immigration and Enforcement (ICE) data, since 2018, only two 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”.

Dr Rivera also told us: “medical care decisions concerning detainees are made by medical personnel, not by law enforcement personnel. Detainees are afforded informed consent, and a medical procedure like a hysterectomy would never be performed against a detainee’s will”.

What have other sources said?

As it stands, the allegations contained in the Project South report have all related to a single doctor.

US network NBC News says it has spoken to three lawyers who say their clients saw the same doctor while detained at Irwin County Detention Center.

One lawyer, Benjamin Osorio, said two of his clients underwent hysterectomies that they believe may have been unnecessary. We don’t know when these women were held at ICDC, so we can’t tell if these women might be some of those Project South has already been told about, or if they are additional cases.

Another lawyer, Elizabeth Matherne, worked with “several women” between 2017 and 2019 who saw him. She says she told a manager at the Center that she “had heard from multiple people that he was rough, that they were scared to go to him, that they didn’t understand what he was doing”.

And lawyer Sarah Owings is reported as saying that she’s heard of many women who are told they have ovarian cysts that need to be removed or drained. Ms Owings told NBC News: “I don’t think this is necessarily a systemic sterilization by ICE. I think this is the kind of thing that is allowed to flourish in the course of poor oversight and terrible, inhumane conditions of confinement”.

From Ms Matherne and Ms Owings’ public statements, it doesn’t appear that they heard specifically about hysterectomies, but rather about other treatments. We have contacted both lawyers to check whether that is the case.

The lawyer representing the doctor at the centre of the allegations has “vigorously denied” the claims.

LaSalle Corrections, the private company that runs the ICDC, told NBC News: “Our company strongly refutes these allegations and any implications of misconduct at the ICDC.”

FactCheck verdict

Many media outlets and high-profile social media users have claimed that women at a US immigration centre in Georgia are subjected to “mass hysterectomies” or “mass sterilisation” without their full informed consent.

The whistleblower at the centre of the story says she estimates 20 women had hysterectomies at the Irwin County Detention Center over six years.

From what we’ve seen, all the allegations are against a single doctor (he denies them). Two women say they were given hysterectomies that may not have been necessary. If they are true, they are tragedies and scandals for the victims.

But at time of writing, we have not seen evidence that hysterectomies were happening at the facility on a “mass scale”. So for now, we should be careful about using the language of “mass hysterectomies” and “mass sterilisation”, which harks back to several shameful chapters in America’s recent past in which thousands of predominantly black women and girls were forcibly sterilised by the state.

The case has been referred to the government watchdog that oversees US immigration authorities.