The good news is that forced sterilization is now illegal in California. The bad news is that the bill was necessary because up until now, coerced tubal ligations were happening.
Last Thursday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill which banned using sterilization as a form of birth control for female inmates in all jails, prisons, and detention centers. While the new law is a victory, it is a response to a tragedy and an outrage. As we covered last year, the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that 148 women had undergone tubal violations which violated prison rules between 2006 and 2010. A state audit from June of 2014 find that over a quarter of the procedures, at least 39, had been performed without the required consent. In 18 cases, the mandated waiting period after consent was violated.
Crystal Nguyen was an inmate at the Valley State Prison who worked in the prison’s infirmary in 2007. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s not right,’ ” Nguyen, 28, recalls. “Do they think they’re animals, and they don’t want them to breed anymore?”
“As soon as he found out that I had five kids, he suggested that I look into getting it done.” Christina Cordero, 34, who was in prison for car theft, remembers being pressured by the prison doctor to undergo tubal ligation: “The closer I got to my due date, the more he talked about it… He made me feel like a bad mother if I didn’t do it.” So she got the procedure. But, Cordero adds that, “today, I wish I would have never had it done.”
Of course, the over 140 cases are just the most recent examples in a long history of forced sterilization of prisoners–in California and elsewhere in the US. Between 1909 and 1964 approximately 20,000 men and women, who were disproportionately of color, poor, disabled, mentally ill, and incarcerated, underwent forced sterilization in California. Though the practice was banned in 1979, it continued in prisons.
The law, which will go into affect January 1, outlaws any sterilizing operations, including tubal ligations and hysterectomies. In the case of life-threatening circumstances, inmates must undergo counseling from independent doctors not under contract with the prison. Local jails and state prisons will be required to keep track of and report the surgeries online. And employees who report violations or abuses will be protected from retaliation.
The bipartisan bill was crafted by Cynthia Chandler, the co-founder of the Oakland, California-based prisoner rights group Justice Now, and Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara. Chandler said, “Allowing California to continue its sterilization practices unfettered would have, in effect, undone years of activism and effort made by the civil rights movement, and open a door to modern day eugenics in prison.” Jackson said, “Pressuring a vulnerable population into making permanent reproductive choices without informed consent is unacceptable, and violates our most basic human rights… This bill will help ensure that forced or coerced sterilizations never occur in our jails and prisons, and I’m very pleased that the Governor has signed it into law.”
But there is more work left to be done. Jackson added that, “People who were sterilized during labor and delivery should be notified because we don’t have confidence they all know what happened … or understood the magnitude of what happened.” And the law will have to actually be enforced. As Alexandra Minna Stern, a professor at the University of Michigan and an expert on California sterilization said, “One would hope that this means, ‘Never again.’ But I also think we can’t sit down complacently now and say, ‘Well, this is taken care of.’”
Sadly, forced sterilization’s popularity isn’t limited to California. Earlier in September, Russell Pearce, a top Arizona Republican official stated on the radio, “You put me in charge of Medicaid, the first thing I’d do is get a woman Norplant, birth-control implants, or tubal ligations.” Pearce was forced to step down as the state Republican party’s first vice-chairman. But who knows how many people agree with him behind closed doors?