Sterilization Offer Harkens Back to Dark Days of “Public Health”

In May, a Tennessee general sessions judge issued an order that allowed inmates at correctional facilities to take long-term birth control in exchange for having their sentences reduced. Judge Sam Benningfield offered to remove 30 days from the end of a sentence should a female inmate use Nexplanon, a form of long-term birth control inserted under the skin, or if male inmates agreed to undergo vasectomy procedures, a permanent and irreversible form of surgically-induced sterility in men. Benningfield justified his offer by claiming that the majority of cases where the offer was made were drug-related cases, and that the birth control would drive home the point that drugs are dangerous to would-be parents.

The ACLU of Tennessee, however, disagreed with the effectiveness of this deterrent. Representatives of the organization said that the order is almost certainly unconstitutional and threatened further legal action should the order not be rescinded by the judge. Benningfield then decided to withdraw the order and stated that he understood the controversy around it. He later clarified that anyone who had already signed up for the offer — there had been several dozen men and women who had — would still get their sentences reduced since they had shown a willingness to make a change.

While it may seem like an outlandish offer for a representative of the U.S. judicial system to make, offering sterilization has been a long-established practice. As recently as 2010, inmates were being sterilized in California prisons. Contraception and sterilization were offered to inmates in California prisons at least from 1997 through 2010. No state official had ever sanctioned the program or signed off on its existence. Prison staff were known to encourage inmates to seek contraceptive services, some even supposedly treating the inmates like animals that needed to stop breeding to quell a problem.

In addition to the obvious moral dilemma this caused, there was a budgetary concern. Some gynecologists were reportedly given over $100,000 to perform hysterectomies in California prisons. When questioned, one of the gynecologists, Dr. James Heinrich, said, “Over a 10-year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money … compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children — as they procreated more.”

While the California prison case was immediately ceased in 2010, forced or coerced sterilization has been an infamous facet of the history of public health in the United States. The idea of eugenics, or the removal of the ability for one group of people to reproduce, flourished during the early 20th century. Sterilization techniques were often used to try to negate the growth of certain populations and races. In a way, the State of California led the way in the eugenics movement. Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman, the father of modern IQ testing, was also an early supporter of eugenics. Tens of thousands were sterilized in California during the 1900s, and even more were sterilized throughout the 32 states where it was legal.

But, luckily, headway has been made against forced and coerced sterilization in the state. During the 1970s, many Chicana women were sterlized without informed consent because they were feared to be a drain on the state’s resources despite being financially independent and not utilizing state assistance. These women joined in Madrigal v. Quilligan, a class-action lawsuit against the University of South California/Los Angeles County Medical Center. The case was decided in favor in the women, and forced sterilization in the state came to a halt.

Judge Benningfield’s order, however, didn’t make it to court, and his actions constitute nothing new to our nation. Benningfield’s offer of sterilization is simply the latest iteration of a long fight against forced sterilization for some of the most vulnerable populations in America.