Between 2006 and 2010, at least 148 female prisoners at 2 California facilities were sterilized without required state approval. Even worse, some of the women have claimed that they were pressured, harassed, and even tricked into signing forms agreeing to the sterilizations. The procedure is known as tubal ligation and involves cutting, clamping, or blocking a woman’s fallopian tubes to prevent eggs from reaching the uterus. But finally, in September 2014, California Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 1135 into law, which will ban sterilization as a form of birth control in the state’s women’s prisons beginning January 1, 2015.
It was a 20th century practice with a dark history that shouldn’t have lasted into the modern day. It began in 1849 when Gordon Lincecum, a Texas biologist and physician, proposed a bill for the sterilization of the mentally handicapped and others whose genes he deemed as “undesirable” so that their “inferior” genetics would not be passed on to future generations. However, the bill was never brought to a vote and the issue was quieted for almost 50 years. Between 1897 and 1909, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Washington, and California all passed, or at least attempted to pass, forced sterilization laws that would apply to those with mental handicaps. By the 1920s, half of the states had enacted similar laws. Nazi Germany even consulted with California’s eugenics leaders after Adolf Hitler gained total control of the country and passed the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring in 1933.
How has this practice lasted so long that a law was only just passed this year banning it? It started in 2004 when advocacy group Justice Now began receiving letters from women in prison about their health care. They told their stories of how hysterectomies and tubal ligations were being performed on them frequently, some even without their consent or knowledge. The group investigated the matter further. However, because prisons are not allowed to talk about inmates’ medical records, Justice Now decided to reach out to the women incarcerated in the prisons directly. In 2006, a federal judge appointed a federal receiver to oversee California’s prison health care system. Justice Now asked the receiver’s office about prenatal care practices, but didn’t get a response until 2 years later. The answer was that more than 100 women in 2 California prisons had been sterilized within a 4-year period.
Christina Cordero, a former inmate at one of the prisons, Valley State, gave birth to a son in October 2006, and said she was repeatedly pressured by the institution’s Ob/Gyn, Dr. James Heinrich, to agree to have the procedure performed. “As soon as he found out that I had five kids, he suggested that I look into getting it done,” Cordero said. “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. Today, I wish I would have never had it done.”
Another former prisoner, Kimberly Jeffrey, gave birth to a son while at Valley State and said she went into a panic when doctors confronted her with sterilization as she was sedated on an operating table for a Caesarean section. She said the doctor tried to perform a tubal ligation, even though she refused the procedure twice during earlier visits. Jeffrey recounts: “As I was laying on the operating table, moments before I went into surgery, [the doctor] had made a statement that, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this tubal ligation, right?‘ And I’m like, ‘tubal ligation? What are you talking about? I don’t want any procedure. I just want to have my baby.’”
Former inmates and prisoner advocates say that the medical staff pressured the women who they deemed likely to return to prison in the future to be sterilized. Crystal Nguyen, a former Valley State inmate, said she would overhear medical staff asking inmates who had served multiple prison terms to agree to be sterilized. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s not right,’” Nguyen said. “Do they think they’re animals, and they don’t want them to breed anymore?”
Federal and state laws ban inmate sterilization if federal funds are used, so California used state funds instead. However, since 1994, sterilization procedures have required approval from top medical officials on a case-by-case basis. But no tubal ligation requests were presented to the health care committee responsible for approving such procedures.
It wasn’t until the people inside the women’s prisons spoke up repeatedly that SB 1135 came into existence. They reached out to Justice Now and told their stories publicly while advocates continued to press the issue. Finally, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the act into law in September 2014. The new law will ban sterilization as a form of birth control in the state’s women’s prisons, except in the case of a life-threatening situation, when the law requires a second opinion and counseling on the effects of the procedure. The victory is just the first step on a long road ahead, however. No other state has banned prison sterilizations and many other states lack advocacy organizations.
- California bans sterilization of female inmates without consent. NBC News website. September 26, 2014. http://www.nbcnews.com/health/womens-health/california-bans-sterilization-female-inmates-without-consent-n212256.
- Johnson CG. Female inmates sterilized in California prisons without approval. The Center for Investigative Reporting website. July 7, 2013. http://cironline.org/reports/female-inmates-sterilized-california-prisons-without-approval-4917.
- Law V. It’s 2014. Why do we still need laws banning coerced sterilization? Truthout website. October 29, 2014. http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/27121-it-s-2014-why-do-we-still-need-laws-banning-coerced-sterilization.