California Finally Bans Forced Sterilization of Female Inmates

by Vins
Published: Updated:

In September 2014, California governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB 1135, a bill banning the forced sterilization of female inmates as a form of birth control. The bill was introduced by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson after the Center for Investigative Reporting disclosed in 2013 that 148 women were sterilized in violation of prison rules between 2006 and 2010.  CIR also reports that there could be hundreds of more cases dating back to the 1990s.  In June, a state audit confirmed that over a quarter of the procedures were performed without inmates’ consent.

The state of California paid doctors nearly $150,000 to perform tubal ligations on inmates between 1997 and 2010.  According to Dr. James Heinrich, the OB-GYN at Valley State Prison for Women, “That isn’t a huge amount of money compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children- as they procreated more.” Several former inmates have come forward with the help of prison advocacy group Justice Now to reveal that they were pressured by doctors to have tubal ligations.  Doctors at Valley State have also been accused of asking women to sign consent forms while they are in labor. State law has required approval for sterilization procedures by the Health Care Review Committee since 1994, but no requests have come before that committee, despite the 148 procedures that have been documented. Although the bill passed unanimously in August 2014, the compulsory sterilizations are a reminder of California’s dark history of abuse via eugenics. Justice Now reports that two thirds of the inmates sterilized are women of color, and that doctors purposefully targeted poor, uneducated, drug addicted, and mentally ill women when pushing for sterilization.

A few mainstream media outlets such as NBC News and the Washington Post have done light reporting on SB 1135, but failed to cover the entire story.  Without the historical background of eugenics in California, interviews with doctors, state officials, or, most importantly, the victims themselves, the reporting done by mainstream news outlets is not contextualized and incomplete.

Source: Katie McDonough, “’He Made Me Feel Like a Bad Mother If I Didn’t Do It’: California Bans Forced Sterilization in Prison,” Salon, September 26, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/09/26/he_made_me_feel_like_a_bad_mother_if_i_didn%E2%80%99t_do_it_california_bans_forced_sterilizations_in_prison/.

Student Researcher: Madeline Pajerowski (Burlington College)

Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (Burlington College)