Oh, America. Never change. Wait, sorry, hang on, please change.
In the news this week is a revival of interest in the scandal of coerced sterilization in California prisons. This isn’t just a helpful reminder that you should pay attention to what went on between 2006 and 2010—there’s been developments in the investigation. Under the stress and disempowerment of being pregnant and incarcerated, 144 women in four of California’s prisons underwent tubal ligation or hysterectomy. Investigation found that at least 39 of the operations took place without a signed consent form or without the proper waiting period. On the surface, this is a silly bureaucratic issue when compared to the horrific nature of the abuse, but it does say quite a bit about how our society views prisoners, women, and people of color. The fact that these operations were carried out absent input and approval from officials means that the staff independently had it in their heads it was totally fine and natural to sterilize prisoners to cut them out of the gene pool.
Until Nazi Germany came along and made people a little queasy about the idea, eugenics was a pretty popular notion in this country. Addicts, people with disabilities, sexual “deviants,” and, of course, racial minorities didn’t match up with what Americans wanted their country to be, and so laws were established to go about preventing them from contributing to the population. California in particular has a storied past with eugenics. In 1909, it was the third state to sign sterilization laws, and carried out about a third of all eugenic sterilizations nationally. And while other states’ laws were challenged and defeated in courts, California’s stayed on the books until 1979, when a group representing 140 women filed suit against an LA hospital that sterilized them without consent.
Again, thanks to the Nazis, it’s rare nowadays to see someone advocating eugenics for the sake of racial purity. It’s now come down to more of a pragmatic argument of social costs and human suffering. In other words, pressure on the social safety net. Dr. James Heinrich, the doctor in charge of administering the sterilizations, defended the procedures on the grounds that they saved the state a lot of welfare money. This shift clearly doesn’t solve the whole racism element, especially given the dramatic interplay of class and race, and the racial imbalance in the prison system.
Justice Now, the organization mainly responsible for bringing this more recent scandal to light, recorded two of its interviews with these women. The testimonies both stated that, to their knowledge, only black women were being pushed into the procedure.
So the doctors really went above and beyond, here. They pushed sterilization on women whose judgment was impaired with childbirth drugs, tried to sneak the procedure in during C-sections, ignored the law and the waiting periods cause they were just so eager to prevent these people from breeding. Compelling prisoners to do anything is already kind of shady in my eyes, but removing their ability and right to reproduce is really beyond the pale, regardless of whether they agreed to it or not.
In a similar spot stands the North Carolina program Project Prevention. In a Radiolab story from a while back, they explored Barbara Harris’ plan to offer drug addicted women and men money to go on long-term birth control or have themselves sterilized. While Barbara has no real control over these people, the same criticisms are leveled at her—she’s exploiting weakness to manipulate who can have children. Her method is certainly more morally ambiguous, but nonetheless the program contributes to a complex of denying certain groups reproduction, rather than educating or assisting with the difficulties of addiction and raising children.
Obviously the people involved in carrying out these procedures bristle at their work being called “eugenics,” but the fact is that their reasons for doing the work stem from seeing these prisoners and addicts as problems to be solved, rather than people who need help. First and foremost to Project Prevention, an addict is a problem. The prisons where the sterilizations took place took it to a cartoonishly evil extreme, and like any villain, thought they, too, were doing the right thing.
Aside from the fact that it happened at all, the worst thing about this is how unsurprising it was. The practice of sterilizing prisoners to potentially lighten the load on social programs is a natural progression from the attitudes our society holds on the demographics involved. Our country is perfectly happy sending people to our hellhole prisons in the first place, black mothers are heavily stereotyped as sucking up tons of welfare benefits, drug addicts are often regarded as scum, and in huge parts of the country, women aren’t allowed control over their bodies. With our country’s history of federally-sanctioned eugenics, it really is no surprise that some enterprising doctors with medical control over some of our most dehumanized citizens took it upon themselves to “improve” society. With so many social issues, the key is empathy. Let’s hope we can get that shit going, huh, America?