By Kathleen Sloan, Consultant to the CBC
If you thought that the days of eugenics were ancient history, you would be terribly mistaken. The Center for Investigative Reporting has revealed that between 2006 and 2010, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation coercively sterilized approximately 150 women. In violation of prison rules, tubal ligations were performed on female inmates during labor and childbirth without their consent. It is estimated that at least 100 more were performed going back to the late 1990s. From 1997 to 2010, California taxpayers paid contracting physicians $147,460 to sterilize women at prisons in Corona and Chowchilla.
Prison medical staff coerced pregnant women who were deemed likely to return to prison in the future. Working in the infirmary in 2007, Crystal Nguyen overheard medical staff asking inmates who had served multiple prison terms to agree to be sterilized. Nguyen reacted with disgust: “Do they think they’re animals, and they don’t want them to breed anymore?”
Most infamously practiced by the Nazis in the 1930s, eugenics targets society’s “undesirables” for extermination. California too has an ugly past with eugenics. Under compulsory sterilization laws there and in 31 other states, racial minorities, the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, and people with criminal convictions were singled out as inferior and sterilized to prevent them from spreading their genes. Between 1909 and 1964, approximately 20,000 women and men in California alone were forcibly sterilized—the largest number of any state in the country.
Finally in 2003 the California senate held hearings to expose this history and then-Governor Gray Davis issued a formal apology. “Our hearts are heavy for the pain caused by eugenics. It was a sad and regrettable chapter in the state’s history, and it is one that must never be repeated again,” Davis declared in a statement. Tragically, this proclamation was ignored by the California prison system.
In 2010 Kimberly Jeffry, a former inmate, relayed in an interview that a doctor pressured her to agree to be sterilized while she was sedated and strapped to a surgical table for a C-section. “He said, ‘So we’re going to be doing this tubal ligation, right?” Jeffrey responded, “I’m like, ‘Tubal ligation? What are you talking about? I don’t want any procedure. I just want to have my baby.’ I went into a straight panic.”
Imagine yourself in a situation where you are in excruciating physical pain, drugged, and undergoing a medical procedure. Consequently and obviously at the mercy of the medical personnel in charge, the presiding physician announces that an unrelated irrevocable medical intervention is going to be undertaken. The helplessness and trauma would remain with you for the rest of your life. Kimberly articulates it precisely: “Being treated like I was less than human produced in me a despair.”
Esteemed law professor and expert on sterilization Dorothy Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania writes that courts have concluded that soliciting approval for sterilization during labor is coercive because pain and discomfort can impair a woman’s ability to weigh the decision. “If this was happening in a federal prison, it would be illegal. There are specific situations where you cannot say it’s informed consent, and one of them is during childbirth and labor. No woman should give consent on the operating table.”
What kind of barbarity have we descended to as a society when we take away the most basic human rights and dignity of those least able to defend themselves? The doctor at the center of the most recent violations, James Heinrich of Valley State Prison for Women, justified the sterilizations based on “what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children—as they procreated more.”
Traversing truly beyond the pale, Dr. Heinrich voiced both contempt for and slander on these powerless women asserting “If they come a year or two later saying, ‘Somebody forced me to have this done,’ that’s a lie. That’s somebody looking for the state to give them a handout.” Horrifyingly, the heirs of Josef Mengele live on in the California state prison system.
Kathleen Sloan is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Organization for Women (NOW), a consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture, and the former Program Director of the Council for Responsible Genetics.