Female prisoners in Calif. found to be the victims of coerced sterilizations


"Being treated like I was less than human produced in me a despair." - Kimberly Jeffrey

This month, the Center For Investigative Reporting released a disturbing report on activity in California's prison system. From at least 1997-2010, nearly 150 women were found to be sterilized while in prison, and several of the women have related that they were often forced to give their approval, some while actually giving birth.

California has history in this area already, with a past that included over 20,000 sterilizations between 1909-1964. Women who were considered unfit (morally, mentally or genetically) to bear children were routinely sterilized under a program that was open in its goal of eugenics. California has historically been the state where the most sterilizations were performed in the now-discredited program of eliminating those deemed socially unfit from contributing to the gene pool.

Tubal ligation is a non-reversible surgical method of birth control. Prison doctors who performed the surgery protested that they deemed it medically necessary to prevent further dangerous deliveries for women who had more than one C-section and might be at risk in the case of a future pregnancy. However, there are less invasive methods like IUD or implants that can prevent future pregnancies without being irreversible.

Feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte highlighted the parts of the CIR report that centers on the highly inflammatory comments made by prison doctors, which belies their claims that they were performing merely medically necessary operations. Instead, more than one implied that they felt their actions were also performing a needed service to society.

"Over a 10-year period, that isn't a huge amount of money," Dr. James Heinrich said, (referring to state funds used to pay for tubal ligation surgery), "compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children - as they procreated more."

Dr. Heinrich worked in conjunction with Daun Martin, prison administrator of Valley State Prison of Chowchilla. Martin has also objected to the implication that sterilizations were done as a form of social engineering in the prisons. She said that tubal ligation was offered to women as a form of medical empowerment, even though approval needed to be given on a case-by-case basis and are restricted by law in prison unless it is a medical emergency. Federal funds are banned for use for prisoner sterilization, but prisons used California state funds instead.

Martin's professed altruism came under question when she further explained she also wished to limit the amount of women she felt used the prison system as a health plan when pregnant, "Do I criticize those women for manipulating the system because they're pregnant? Absolutely not. But I don't think it should happen. And I'd like to find ways to decrease that."

Evidence abounds that several of the women who were sterilized had the procedure done with their approval coerced while under duress, such as giving birth or being examined while pregnant. Kimberly Jeffrey managed to avoid being sterilized, but reports that she was requested several times to consent to the operation by her prison doctor, Heinrich.

CIR further reports: "Dorothy Roberts, a University of Pennsylvania law professor and expert on sterilization, said courts have concluded that soliciting approval for sterilization during labor is coercive because pain and discomfort can impair a woman's ability to weigh the decision."

The report continues, "If this was happening in a federal prison, it would be illegal," Roberts said. "There are specific situations where you cannot say it's informed consent, and one of them is during childbirth or labor. No woman should give consent on the operating table."

Dr. Heinrich responded to this criticism by saying that the women affected are now just looking for government handouts, "If they come a year or two later saying, 'Somebody forced me to have this done,' that's a lie. That's somebody looking for the state to give them a handout. My guess is that the only reason you do that is not because you feel wronged, but that you want to stay on the state's dole somehow."

Photo: The California Institution for Women in Corona (pictured) was one of two state prisons where female inmates were sterilized without required state approvals. At least 148 women received tubal ligations in violation of prison rules from 2006 to 2010. / Courtesy of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

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  • Good rebuttals Gary and Butch. Only a couple of things to add here-the issue of the other alternatives doctors had as options to offer women was covered in the report by CIR. Irreversible tubal ligation is extremely drastic and should not be the only option offered.

    The issue of what constitutes legal consent was also covered in the article. The society we do live in has laws about when and how agreements can be entered into. The power to sterilize any whom they deem unfit has not been granted by society to doctors.

    I do not see any proof that it was in the best interests of the state to take away the decision-making power of women.

    Posted by Michelle Kern, 07/19/2013 8:40am (3 years ago)

  • actually....and the nuremburg trial transcripts bear this out... nazi ideology and practices got their inspiration FROM u.s. eugenics practices.

    and i'm afraid to ask, but need to know....... how many of the california women were nonwhite?

    Posted by gary hicks, 07/18/2013 3:00pm (3 years ago)

  • ComradeUSA[???]

    1. first of all, let's not talk about china. not that china shouldn't be discussed, but not as a diversion to what and where we're talking about...STERILIZATION IN CALIFORNIA.

    2. let's get the math right. not "1 or 2 on average. average 10 to 15 PER YEAR. in any event, 150 total over 10 years. in case you missed it btw......one is too many.

    3. "natural rights"..... i'm confused about where a term associated with the "natural right" to own slaves snuck its way into this conversation. And a study of history is in order. Every right that has been attained by groups, classes, etc. of people in this country has been paid for in blood. They have never been privileges; they are entitlements paid for in and through struggle.

    Posted by gary hicks, 07/18/2013 4:26am (3 years ago)

  • Forced sterilization was used against black women, Indian women, and the supposedly low IQ in my lifetime right here in the USA. It is derived from NAZI ideology.

    Posted by Butch M. Taylor, 07/17/2013 10:19pm (3 years ago)

  • Is this really the best we can come up with? These doctors did both what was in the best interests of these women and what was in the best interests of the State. Look at China, for instance, where forced abortions have become the norm for women who break the reproductive law and thereby threaten the stability of the State.

    And since it has only happened to about 150 women in a total of about 10 years (1 or 2 women in a single year on average), we have no reason to presume false the doctors' claim about it being to prevent injury to the women.

    I do not understand why everyone believes reproduction to be a "natural right." In my opinion, such a thing does not exist. Every right you enjoy you should consider a privilege granted to you by the Society in which you live.

    Posted by ComradeUSA, 07/16/2013 11:27pm (3 years ago)

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