California inmate sterilizations report recalls a dark history

Almost 150 female California inmates were sterilized between 2006 and 2010, according to an investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting. The report recalls a dark history of eugenic thought in the US.  

AP/Rich Pedroncelli
A new report detailed almost 150 instances where female inmates in California prisons were sterilized. A multi-inmate cell is seen at a new housing unit near completion at the Madera County Jail in Madera, Calif., Feb. 21.

report detailing the controversial sterilization of nearly 150 female inmates in California from 2006 to 2010 has touched off intense controversy. The degree to which the procedures were medically necessary and involved freely given, well–informed consent are both active points of contention. But regardless of the facts, the act of sterilizing women prisoners inevitably provokes comment – and argument.

As it stands, the story goes to the heart not just of the modern American penchant for aggressive incarceration, but also to what it means to be human.

The sterilizations seem to indicate that the battle over womens' bodies has been taken into a new arena. As the debate over abortion rages from coast to coast and state to state (Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker just signed into law an act that requires women seeking abortions to undergo an ultrasound), the degree to which reproductive rights are actually "rights" per se is wavering.

The story also raises the profoundly important and often overlooked issue of prisoner dehumanization. America's penal system once struggled to balance rehabilitation, containment and punishment as objectives; fearing being seen as "soft on crime," many politicians in recent years have emphasized punishment to the near–exclusion of education and other rehabilitative goals. In California in particular, the shift has been accelerated by an independent, "tough on crime" prisoner guards' union that has managed to turn a high incarceration rate into thousands of well–paid jobs (and dues–paying members).

Perhaps most troubling, the California allegations call up the specter of eugenics – the idea that some lives are, quite literally, worth more than others and that selective breeding can encourage "good" traits and diminish "bad" ones.

Commenting on the roughly $150,000 spent on sterilizations from 1997 to 2010, one of the doctors at the heart of the story suggested that the money was a wise investment. "Over a 10–year period, that isn't a huge amount of money," [Valley State prison OB–GYN James] Heinrich said in The Center for Investigative Reporting story about the operations, "compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children – as they procreated more."

Or, to boil that down: the potential children of these women would be worth more to society if they never existed.

The urge to quantify the value of humans – through IQ, through economic activity, through racial heritage  – is historically irresistible. But after an early 20th–century love affair with eugenics blossomed, in part, into the moral barbarism of Nazi Germany, we have collectively gotten cautious about assigning worth to human lives and then punishing or rewarding people as a result.

That's a good thing. Crawl through message boards discussing the story (as I did) and you don't even need to scratch the surface to find a "prisoners are subhuman" note to the discussion: That brand of commentary is the surface.

"Good.  Drains on society," wrote one commenter. "Hard to get all outragey considering they agreed to it," said another, who seemed to miss the contention about potentially coerced sterilizations that was at the heart of the story. About a mother who was in prison for car theft, a commenter wrote: "She is a bad dollars to doughnuts she's on Welfare."

Lost in the swirl of emotion and condemnation are two simple ideas: equality under the law, and the potential for every human being – even and perhaps especially prisoners – to better themselves and make a better life.

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