A California Prison Proposal That is Disturbingly Akin to Eugenics


Given California’s shameful history with the forced sterilizations of thousands of people during the 20th century, you would think that bureaucrats would think twice before suggesting that the sterilization of an imprisoned woman could ever be freely chosen. And you would be wrong.

“Doing what is medically necessary” is how the Gender Responsiveness Strategies Commission of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation termed its July 18 recommendation to consider providing, in the course of delivering a baby, “elective” sterilization of women who give birth in prison, “either post-partum or coinciding with cesarean section.”

To describe a sterilization performed under such circumstances as voluntary is absurd. One’s ability to consent to sterilization, or anything else, during pregnancy and labor is limited in any setting, not to mention in a coercive environment such as a prison. Moreover, Robert Sillen, whom U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson appointed last year as federal receiver over California’ s prison health-care system, has documented that a person dies each day in California prisons due to gross medical neglect. How, in such an environment, could we trust prison staff to ensure informed consent to such a procedure?

Though the sterilization program has not officially commenced, our work with people in California’s women’s prisons indicate that prisons themselves already act as agents of reproductive oppression. Last year, one young Latina woman told us that a prison doctor tried to convince her to be sterilized right after she gave birth.

And we are already hearing of coerced and unnecessarily invasive procedures to remove the reproductive organs of prisoners occurring under the cloak of medical necessity.

Given the over-representation of people of color in U.S. prisons, the GRSC’s proposed sterilizations smack of the state’s long embrace of eugenics, the pseudoscience that resulted in the forced sterilizations of people in state hospitals, ostensibly for mental or developmental illness, including “female promiscuity,” according to William Keating, a doctor who practiced at Sonoma State Hospital in the 1950s.

Because the state has yet to thoroughly examine its own longtime enthusiasm for eugenics practices, it’s difficult to know how many of the estimated 20,000 Californians forcibly sterilized by the state in the 20th century were people of color, but it’s a good bet that many were. What we do know is that, upon embarking on their own eugenics program, the Nazis were inspired by California’s model.

“Elective” sterilization is not the first problematic proposal coming out of the GRSC.

Last year, a policy proposal put forward by the GRSC used misleadingly family-friendly language to dress up a prison expansion scheme as a “community-based” “alternative- to- incarceration” plan that would better serve the families of imprisoned people. This proposal for a whole new system of mini-prisons for women failed after Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, the proposal’s principal coauthor, removed her name from it and declared it to be “a fraud.” That hasn’t stopped Assemblywoman Sally Lieber from reintroducing the proposal this year.

It is crucial that our elected representatives don’t fall for this dangerous policy proposal and that such efforts are not given consideration in four other states to which GRSC members announced their intention to export this California mini-prison expansion model.

No legislators or policy advocates who care about low-income women and women of color, racial justice, or reproductive rights can continue to support the GRSC in good faith. California policymakers should demand the termination of all state employees present at the meeting at which this recommendation to investigate sterilization was made, and dismantle the GRSC altogether. Accountability to women’s healthcare, reproductive freedom and racial justice demands such action.

To truly respond to the needs of people in women’s prisons, we need to end the use of imprisonment as a de facto response to social problems.

Legislators in California and beyond should know better than to consider returning to our shameful eugenicist past, and must stand up for what voters all know is right: communities where everyone is worth caring for. We need to radically reduce the number of people in prison, beginning with a moratorium on new prison construction and staffing. We can then take funds saved from building a new system to imprison women and redirect them into much-needed social services at the county level, independent of the prison system, including housing, health care, education, and job training. Only then can we have true gender justice.

Robin Levi is the human rights director for Justice Now, an Oakland-based human rights organization. Vanessa Huang is Justice Now’s campaign and media director.

Copyright 2007 Daily Journal Corp. Reprinted with permission. This file cannot be downloaded from this page. The Daily Journal’s definition of reprint and posting permission does not include the downloading, copying by third parties or any other type of transmission of any posted articles.


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