Prison Sterilizations and "Choice"

Inmates at California Institute for Women state prison in Chino, California

Since Sunday, the Internet has been abuzz with talk of an investigative report out of California’s women’s prisons.

The article reveals that the California Department of Corrections sterilized nearly 150 people between 2006 and 2010 without getting required state approval. Reporter Corey Johnson recounts the stories of former inmates, women who did time for crimes including auto theft, burglary and forgery. These women faced a double penalty: In addition to incarceration, they were urged by prison medical officials to be sterilized. One reason behind these urgings, sometimes made while a woman was in labor or sedated on an operating table, was summed up by a prison OB/GYN who received state funds – part of the nearly $150,000 paid to doctors over more than a decade -- to perform the procedure:

“That isn’t a huge amount of money, compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children.”

With one exception—a woman who agreed to the procedure and says she has no regrets—nothing in Johnson’s reporting tells us these women didn’t want their children. Kimberly Jeffrey was already sedated in preparation for a C-section when a doctor mentioned his intention to do a tubal ligation. According to the report, she told him, “What are you talking about? I don’t want any procedure. I just want to have my baby.”

Black and Latina women make up just 40% of California’s adult female population, but are 60% of the state’s female prisoners. That racial and ethnic disparity and the economic reality of who ends up prison point to why this story is about more than one state’s well-documented failure to protect the human rights of those incarcerated.

The story also highlights what gets obscured when abortion and contraception take center stage in debates about reproductive rights. Yes, some of us may feel more personally under attack as legislators in North Carolina, Texas and other states try to impose expensive, high-bar criteria on clinics that provide abortions. But for some poor and tenuously middle class women of color, the report out of California reignites an old fear: that one lapse in judgment could mean prison and a loss of all control over our bodies, including the ability to reproduce.

The issue of forced sterilization was last on the national stage in late 2011, as news broke that North Carolina had sterilized thousands of people against their will over more than four decades beginning in the late 1920s. Elaine Riddick, labeled “feebleminded" and prone to promiscuity by the state’s eugenics board, became the face of the tragedy. She had been sterilized at the age of 14 after giving birth to a child she conceived when an older neighbor raped her. News reports revealed that the state’s eugenics program targeted Black women and girls. Riddick was one of them.

That story, like the recent one out of California, could add a new depth and complexity to the usual conversation about “choice.” Riddick and others have been robbed of the chance to create the families they desired. She happens to be firmly entrenched in the anti-choice movement and uses her story to try to restrict abortion rights. But what about other Americans who suffered similar treatment decades ago? And what about the women Johnson interviewed who were deemed unfit to parent just years ago? Is there a place for them in a larger progressive conversation about family and choice?

For Riddick and other North Carolina survivors, the push for justice has been around reparations, financial compensation from the state for those who were forcibly sterilized. That may become the focus here in California. An Oakland-based human rights organization has advocated on behalf of these women for years, and the energy around Sunday’s report offers a new chance for the broader reproductive rights movement – groups with big national platforms and budgets– to get involved.

A more inclusive conversation about choice doesn’t have to stop at righting the wrongs of past atrocities. There’s plenty going on right now, from our immigration policies' role in tearing families apart, to last month’s Supreme Court ruling on the Indian Child Welfare Act. Sunday’s investigative report blew the lid off the violation of rights in California’s women’s prisons, but it could also point a new way forward for how more people concerned about female bodies talk about family and choice.

Dani McClain lives in Oakland, CA. Her writing on gender and reproductive rights is supported by the Nation Institute.