Op/Ed: Compulsory Sterilization in Women's Prisons

Written by: Olivia Piraino, Screenwriting, LMU '20

Hand in Jail

Introduction

Imagine that you are in the hospital, being prepped for a cesarean section, when you overhear your doctor tell the medical staff that he is planning to sterilize you during the surgery. In your heavily sedated state, you attempt to protest, but the words don’t come out. You try to get up, but you find that you are strapped to the operating table. There is nothing you can say or do to stop it. What is supposed to be the happiest moment of your life (the birth of your child) becomes the loss of a part of yourself: your ability to have more children. After the surgery, your child is taken away from you because, after all, you have been deemed “unfit” to be a mother. You lie in the recovery room, alone and handcuffed to the hospital bed, minus your child and your fallopian tubes.

This is the story of Kimberly Jeffrey. Jeffrey was sterilized without her consent during the birth of her child, simply because she was incarcerated.

From 2005-2013, 39 women in California prisons were illegally sterilized (Howell & Cordiner, 2014). These women were either coerced or forced to undergo hysterectomies and tubal ligation procedures and have thus have been stripped of both their authority over their own bodies and their ability to have children.  Compulsory sterilization in the prison system robs incarcerated women of their reproductive autonomy and, ultimately, of their humanity. It is for this reason that strict legislation must be put into place to effectively end the practice of compulsory sterilization, not only in California, but in the all 50 states.

The History of Compulsory Sterilization in California

California is no stranger to practices of compulsory sterilization. In the early to mid-20th century, at the height of the eugenics era, California coercively sterilized more people than any other state in the U.S. (Roth & Ainsworth, 9). In the early 20th century, state governments singled out institutionalized white men and women who were considered “promiscuous” or “feeble minded” to use as experiments to further develop sterilization technology. Experimentation on these folks had the added “benefit” of sterilizing those they deemed “unfit” to reproduce. These practices began to lose public approval as tales of compulsory sterilization in Nazi Germany began to surface in the mid- to late 1940s. (See “Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases.” Although public opinion on forced sterilization shifted toward negative, practices of compulsory sterilization did not cease. Instead, the focus of sterilization was shifted from institutionalized white folks to poor women and women of color.

The Continuation of Compulsory Sterilization into the 21st Century

Once the human targets of compulsory sterilization shifted, the locations shifted from mental institutions to women’s prisons. Due to state attitudes toward drug use and addiction, more and more poor women and women of color were being incarcerated instead of rehabilitated. This meant that women’s prisons were the perfect places for eugenicists and sterilization enthusiasts to find women whose bodies they could control. The United States incarcerates more people than any country in the world, including a third of all incarcerated women worldwide (Roth & Ainsworth, 13). The high incarceration rate of women of color combines with a heavily racialized justice system to designate women’s prisons as sites of reproductive oppression and injustice.

Although laws prohibiting the compulsory sterilization of incarcerated women were passed in 1974, the practice still continues to this day. Those in control of prisons find loopholes by not declaring the inmates as such on hospital records, instructing sterilization procedures to be performed at the same time as other procedures, or by declaring these procedures to be “medically necessary” due to infections, cysts, or illnesses (Levi, 77). According to the law, sterilization procedures are legal as long as the woman consents to it. To get around this, incarcerated women are given consent papers while in labor, refused medical attention unless they sign, or targeted for not speaking English.

Conclusion

As of right now, the only laws in place to try and combat compulsory sterilization in women’s prisons prohibit federal funding of sterilization and require that “informed consent” be obtained before any procedure is performed. There are many loopholes in these laws and the punishments for breaking them are not very severe. The first step toward ending compulsory sterilization is to pass stricter laws that completely prohibit the sterilization of incarcerated women unless specifically requested by the woman herself. The second step is to reduce the number of women in prison. This can be done through decarceration strategies that reform parole policies and “redirect resources back to communities” (Levi, 81). Ending the dehumanizing compulsory sterilization practices in women’s prisons is crucial in the fight for reproductive justice and equality. Incarcerated women are people too. They must be treated as such.

 

Op/Ed: Compulsory Sterilization in Women's Prisons