Speaking of Women's Rights...: California calls it "a favor", we call it racism.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

California calls it "a favor", we call it racism.

by Kelsey Ryland

One of the most intimate and complex decisions a person can make is when, or if, to have children.  A recent report out of California exposed the state’s practice of preventing women from making such a decision by sterilizing incarcerated women through coercion and force. 

By evaluating prison records, the prisoner and women’s rights group Justice Now discovered that nearly 150 women were surgically sterilized from 2006-2010 in violation of state law. It is possible that nearly 100 more women were sterilized dating back to the late 1990s.  Women who witnessed this practice have reported that the procedure was largely forced upon women of color much more often than onto white women. One woman reported being told that she had a medical condition that required a hysterectomy, only to find out after being released from prison that she no longer had symptoms of the condition, making sterilization medically unnecessary. Women who were pregnant during their time in prison were repeatedly pressured into being sterilized during labor and delivery by doctors that treated the practice of tubal ligation as standard, routine care. Like any medical decision, the decision to be sterilized should be made with informed consent between a patient and her doctor. Coercing incarcerated women into making irreversible decisions about her reproductive health by presenting misleading information about a condition that arguably does not exist or asking her to make important health decisions during labor is both unethical and illegal.

The mass sterilization of women in prison was outlawed in 1979.  The fact that these practices still exist, even with clear laws banning them, is shocking.  What is equally shocking is that prison officials have purported that they were doing these women – and California tax payers – a favor by promoting sterilization in the prison system. One doctor who was paid $147,460 in a thirteen-year period to perform the procedures justified his actions by stating that he was saving the taxpayers more than that by saving money in welfare for these “unwanted children.”  But this begs the question, “unwanted by whom?” The attitude taken by this doctor harkens back to a shameful time in our history when people in power believed that some lives were more important than others.  In fact, California’s history of eugenics is notorious for having influenced the practices of the Nazi regime in Germany.

This is undeniably an issue of reproductive choice and reproductive justice.  Every person should be afforded the freedom and resources to decide whether to have children, to not have children, and to parent the children they have.  The California prison system violated the rights of these women, and robbed them of their ability to make personal reproductive decisions. While incarcerated, woman are stripped of their connection with their families and the ability to exercise their most basic decision making power. To rob someone of her ability to make the decision to continue having children, even once she is no longer incarcerated, is further unwarranted punishment and is an abhorrent abuse of power.

This should outrage all of us who advocate for the right to decide when to have children and to do so with dignity, free from coercion and violence. As one formerly incarcerated woman said, state prison officials are the real repeat offenders, they repeatedly offended me by denying me my right to dignity and humanity."



Kelsey is a summer intern at Legal Voice and a rising 3 year law student at Seattle University School of Law.  Kelsey has her undergraduate degree in Sociology and Women’s Studies from Seattle Pacific University.  She is a California native who loves the Pacific Northwest.