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July 17, 2013

Forced sterilization has been outlawed in California since 1979, but a new report this month from the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that 148 incarcerated women received tubal ligations without state approval between 2006-2010. Many of those women have reported they felt coerced or intimidated into the procedure.

The sterilizations were not pushed on women at random; CIR reports that prison doctors targeted women they deemed most likely to commit future crimes. When asked about the $147,460 price tag for the sterilizations, Dr. James Heinrich told CIR, “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.” A former inmate who worked in the infirmary said, “she often overheard medical staff asking inmates who had served multiple prison terms to agree to be sterilized.”

Heinrich’s rationale evokes the argument of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the 1927 Supreme Court Case Buck v. Bell. The 8-1 decision upheld the constitutionality of mandatory sterilization laws in Virginia, thereby upholding sterilization laws that had been on the books in California since 1909.

“It is better for the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind,” Wendell wrote.

The case affirmed a long history between sterilization and eugenics in California, where approximately 20,000 forced sterilizations took place legally between 1909 and 1979, constituting more than a third of all sterilizations in the United States throughout the 20th century.

Involuntary sterilization was framed as both a public health strategy and a service to those women undergoing the treatment. California’s 1913 law called for the “asexualization” of prisoners when “it will be beneficial and conducive to the benefit of the physical, mental, or moral condition of any recidivist.” Similarly, CIR reports that the top medical manager at an offending California prison characterized the sterilizations occurring there as “an empowerment issue for female inmates, providing them the same options as women on the outside.”

These new allegations are reminiscent of eugenicist ideas of the “unfit mother” who should not be allowed to reproduce. Those deemed “unfit” were predominantly low income women and women of color. While reproductive justice is often framed as an issue of access to safe abortions and birth control, the right of women to control their reproduction and decide to have children is also a critical component of reproductive justice that often goes undiscussed.

In 2003, California governor Gray Davis issued an apology for the state’s past eugenics laws, stating, “it was a sad and regrettable chapter in the state’s history, and it is one that must never be repeated again.”

Current governor Jerry Brown, faced with evidence of that history repeating, has remained silent. He has referred all questions to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

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