In 1924, Adolph Hitler wrote the following words:
I have studied with great interest the laws of several American states concerning prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny would in all probability be of no value or injurious to the racial stock.
What he was referring to was the development of the Nazi eugenics program — and its roots in California’s (among other states) forced sterilization programs for the “unfit”. Indeed, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes infamously reasoned in Buck v. Bell 274 U.S. 200 (1927),
It is better for all 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. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes… Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
Even though forced sterilization in California came to a de jure end in 1979, the practice seems to be back. According to Slate.com, a report from the Center for Investigative Reporting, California prisons — in 2010 — were employing coercive methods to permanently sterilize female inmates and ignoring the requisite protocols that would, ostensibly, make such coercion impossible. Specifically,
In California, a health care committee is supposed to authorize prisoner tubal litigations in order to prevent abuses, but from 2006 to 2010, 148 women were sterilized by doctors who just skipped that step. CIR says there may be as many as 100 more cases dating back to the 1990s.
The comments the CIR was able to elicit from participating physicians are a further cause for serious worry: Dr. James Heinrich, OB-GYN, accused of multiple instances of inmate badgering (about sterilization) noted that the resources spent on these procedures
“Over a 10-year period[…]isn’t a huge amount of money[…]compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children—as they procreated more.”
In fact, Christina Cordero, who spent two years for auto theft in Valley State Prison, recalled that Heinrich was rather insistent in pressuring her to agree to a tubal ligation:
“As soon as he found out that I had five kids, he suggested that I look into getting it done. 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.”
Slate further notes that “the top medical manager at Valley State Prison from 2005 to 2008 characterized the surgeries as an empowerment issue for female inmates, providing them the same options as women on the outside. Daun Martin, a licensed psychologist, also claimed that some pregnant women, particularly those on drugs or who were homeless, would commit crimes so they could return to prison for better health care.”
The horror of this situation, and the utter moral failure of institutions and the individuals who run them, are devastatingly clear and obvious. Yet in this climate of an all-out war on women’s health care taking place in a state near you, the necessity of calling attention to these abuses — abuses against those with the least power to respond or even to be heard — could not be more urgent. Is this an inhumane way to save money? Is this naked, unvarnished misogyny, disguised as economic (or moral!) imperative? Is this fueled by racism, classism — a cacophony of all the ugly isms that tend to gather in those dark corners, such as our prison system, where few want to look, and even fewer want to know?
I don’t know. But I suspect all of the above, and what is more, I am not sure that those eagerly engaging in these practices would be overcome by unbearable shame even if accused of the worst transgressions. After all, they were doing their jobs, trying to save the state money, trying to keep the moochers off the state dole. Somewhere, Hannah Arendt is not smiling.