Nearly 250 women have been sterilized in California prisons since the 1990s, according to a new investigative report. As recently as 2010, women were pressured into having tubal ligation surgery at the behest of the California prison system in a process that has been likened to the racist past of the Golden State. It was in California, as in a number of other states of the union, that thousands of Americans were compelled under law to undergo sterilization. As documented in the book War Against the Weak, author Edwin Black chronicles the emergence in the United States of the racist pseudo-science known as eugenics that provided the basis for forced sterilizations of classes of people deemed “unfit” for reproduction. The discredited practice, which National Socialist Germany aped, was thought to have been largely eliminated by the early 1960s.
According to the report by the Center for Investigative Reporting, however, female inmates in California prisons were often told – while in labor – that they should have the surgery even while they were not told why the procedure was necessary. The report showed that between 1997 and 2010, the state government of California paid more than $147,000 for tubal ligations for 148 women that were conducted without proper state approval or oversight. For example, Kimberly Jeffrey, 43, said she was pressured on a number of occasions, even while strapped on an operating table, to have the sterilization procedure after giving birth to her son who is now three years of age. Christina Cordero, 34, who gave birth in Valley State prison in 2006, says she felt like she was coerced into having the sterilization surgery after giving birth. “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,” said Cordero, who served a two year prison sentence. “Today, I wish I would have never had it done.”
Jeffrey said that while she was being prepared for a Caesarean section in 2010, the attending physician all but demanded she agree to sterilization surgery. “He said, ‘So we’re going to be doing this tubal ligation, right?’" attested Jeffrey. In the report, Jeffrey added “I’m like, ‘Tubal ligation? What are you talking about? I don’t want any procedure. I just want to have my baby.’ I went into a straight panic.” According to records from Valley State prison, Jeffrey had refused previous requests she undergo sterilization surgery. “Being treated like I was less than human produced in me a despair,” she said.
However, the report showed that Dr. James Heinrich, in charge as OB-GYN at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla CA, said tying the women’s tubes was a bargain for California taxpayers. “Over a 10-year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children – as they procreated more,” he told the CIR. Dr. Heinrich said no patients were coerced into having sterilization surgery, while he claimed he only recommended the procedure to women who were at risk after multiple C-sections.
Most of the tubal ligations occurred at the prison at Chowchilla CA. “Over a 10-year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children – as they procreated more,” said Dr. Heinrich about the money spent on sterilizations.
Many states, including New York and North Carolina, have a history of sterilizing so-called “undesirable” people - the habitually impoverished, mentally ill, criminals, and people deemed to be “promiscuous.” However, it was California that the practice of sterilization was most egregious. Between 1904 and 1964, some 20,000 persons were sterilized against their will. So efficient was the California sterilization program, representatives from Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany visited the state in the 1930s to study its policies.
A 1977 report by the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse, Mexican-American women had long been targeted for sterilization surgeries as a form of contraception despite serious risks. In 1975, 10 Mexican-American women sued the Los Angeles County Hospital and state officials over the practice. In case, one of the plaintiffs said she had refused consent for sterilization. She alleged that she was punched in the abdomen by a physician and then sterilized. Other women signed consent forms after being in labor for many hours and under heavy medication immediately prior to giving birth via Caesarian section. Two were led to believe that the consent forms they signed were for temporary sterilizations. One of the women was not aware that a sterilization had been done, thus wearing an intrauterine device for 2 years afterwards.
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