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Contemporary Eugenics in US Prisons

By Aimee Murphy

Editor's Note: This is part 2 of a 2 part series on forced sterilization of incarcerated humans. It is also part of our sereis in solidarity with the ongoing National Prison Strike.

At the intersection of racism, ableism, and cruelty to prisoners lies the horrific history of forced sterilization of those incarcerated by the state. Perhaps shockingly, the United States Supreme Court has never overturned Buck v. Bell, the court case which enshrined the compulsory sterilization of those committed in state institutions into admitted law. Though the Skinner v. Oklahoma case in 1942 made it unlawful for criminals to be forcibly sterilized as punishment for crime, compulsory sterilization exists until today by the power of institutional coercion.

This sort of abuse of power by state officials is not, strictly speaking, illegal in most states in the U.S. today. A prime example of this coercion came out of Georgia from 2005, when Judge Rowland Barnes ordered a woman convicted of killing her child to be sterilized as part of her sentence.(1) And in 2013, a report released by the Center for Investigative Reporting outlined the facts within the California carceral system: nearly 150 incarcerated women had been coerced into having tubal ligations performed within the years of 2006-2010.(2) Following the release of this information, state senators in California introduced Senate Bill 1135 to prevent such coercion from happening again.(3) State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, the bill’s sponsor, made a statement saying, “Pressuring a vulnerable population into making permanent reproductive choices without informed consent is unacceptable, and violates our most basic human rights.”(4)

As Jackson explored in her statement on SB 1135, by the very nature of the massive power differential at play between the state and those the state incarcerates, it should be clear that any attempt to promote, provoke, or induce a prisoner to have a permanent, non-reversible surgery that would prevent reproduction for the remainder of their life is inherently coercive, unjust, and violent. Informed consent is a near-impossibility in such a situation, when the power differential is so grave, in which that the incarcerated person is more or less treated as an object owned by the state. And without informed consent, any surgery performed - especially an irreversible one - is a violence against the patient.

This abuse and coercion is especially obvious in cases wherein the convicted person is prescribed sterilization as a condition of their parole or early release. There are several cases in the past five years that demonstrate this dehumanizing treatment of people convicted of crimes. In 2015, the Assistant D.A. in Nashville, TN, was fired for having made blatantly eugenic plea deals with several defendants in the prior five years. In one case with a defendant who’d had a history of mental illness, “Holmgren demanded the mother undergo permanent sterilization as part of any plea that would place her in mental health care instead of prison.”(5) And just last year (in 2017) in White County, TN, Judge Sam Benningfield was offering 30 days off of prison sentences if prisoners had vasectomies (for men) or hormonal birth control implants (for women).(6)

By viewing the present abuses of incarcerated humans through the lens of our past -- our nation’s deep roots of racism, ableism, and eugenics -- we can see that this modern reproductive coercion is merely an extension of the forced sterilization policies that targeted racial minorities and the mentally and physically disabled in prior generations. There are still underlying unscientific ideas at play in our modern era: dehumanizing ideas asserting that all children of disabled people, of racial minorities, of a person convicted of a crime will be genetically predisposed to commit crimes as they age. We must stand up for the inherent dignity of humans with disabilities, humans of racial minority backgrounds, humans who are incarcerated, and all of their children, born and preborn.

(1) Associated Press. “Judge Orders Woman to Undergo Sterilization.” Fox News, February 9, 2005. Accessed August 9, 2018.

(2) Schwarz, Hunter. “Following reports of forced sterilization of female prison inmates, California passes ban.” Washington Post, September 26, 2014. Accessed August 11, 2018.

(3) According to the legislative information website for the State of California: “This bill would prohibit sterilization for the purpose of birth control of an individual under the control of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation or a county correctional facility, as specified. The bill would also otherwise prohibit any means of sterilization of an inmate, except when required for the immediate preservation of life in an emergency medical situation or when medically necessary, as determined by contemporary standards of evidence-based medicine, to treat a diagnosed condition and certain requirements are satisfied, including that patient consent is obtained.” SB 1135: Inmates - sterilization. 2013-2014. Accessed August 11, 2018.

(4) Jackson, Hannah-Beth & staff. “Governor Signs Jackson Bill To Halt Forced Or Coerced Sterilizations In Prisons.” Hannah-Beth Jackson Senate Website, September 25, 2014. Accessed August 13, 2018.

(5) Beery, Zoë. “America’s Long, Shameful History Of Sterilizing Prisoners.” The Outline, July 25, 2017. Accessed August 12, 2018.

(6) Holloway, Kali. “Modern-day eugenics? Prisoners sterilized for shorter sentences.” Salon, July 28, 2017. Accessed August 8, 2018.


Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

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