In 1923, 17-year-old Carrie Buck was raped and impregnated. Her adoptive family, trying to avoid the public shame of having an unwed mother in their midst, had her committed to an institution for the “feeble minded.” Because she was supposedly “feeble-minded” and the daughter of an unwed mother herself, the State of Virginia sought to sterilize her and, in 1927, the Supreme Court ruled in its favor.
One would think we’ve come a long way since 1927. But apparently we haven’t.
Starting in 2006, Christina Cordero spent two years in California’s Valley State Prison for Women for auto theft. She arrived at the prison pregnant and was taken to see the the prison OB-GYN James Heinrich. “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, now age 34. Cordero finally agreed to the procedure before being released in 2008. “Today,” she said, “I wish I would have never had it done.”
Cordero is one of nearly 250 women who have been sterilized while in the California prison system over the last few decades. While millions of eyes were focused on reproductive-rights debates happening in Texas, Wisconsin, and North Carolina this month, the Center for Investigative Reporting released a report that revealed nearly 150 women were sterilized in California prisons from 2006 to 2010 without proper state oversight. According to state documents, approximately 100 additional women had been sterilized in the late 1990s. Several women said Heinrich had pressured them into the operation, sometimes when they were actively in labor or on the operating table for a C-section.
In his defense, Dr. Heinrich told the Center for Investigative Reporting that the $147,000 spent on sterilizing inmates was minimal “compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children—as they procreated more.”
Heinrich’s comment reflects the widespread attitude that certain women, such as women in prison (or women in Texas or Wisconsin if you believe those state lawmakers) should not have the right to determine their reproductive choices.
That mindset is exactly why California has state-oversight safeguards that are supposed to insure that sterilizations are consensual; California put its rules into place in 1994, noting that American prisons have a history of sterilizing inmates that officials deem unfit for procreation. It seems, however, that California’s Department of Corrections has ignored those rules. Women reported being urged to consent while in labor or on the operating table. That kind of pressure is illegal in the federal prison system. It is also illegal to sterilize people in prison if federal funds are used, reflecting fears that people in prison may feel pressured into consenting.
In addition, the State Medical Board is required to approve all prison sterilization procedures, yet no requests came to them for in-prison tubal ligations during those years. The prison’s medical manager, however, told CIR that she and Heinrich began to look for ways around the restrictions.
These sterilizations are part of a gamut of reproductive justices facing people in women’s prisons, and not just those in California: until recently, pregnant women in Arizona’s Maricopa County jail had been denied abortions unless they obtained a court order and prepaid transportation and security costs. Such requirements often prevented women from accessing abortions. In most states, childbirth behind bars occurs in shackles and chains.
Last year, I worked with WORTH, an association of currently and formerly incarcerated women, on their Birthing Behind Bars campaign linking reproductive justice and prison issues. I spoke with women in several states about their experiences of pregnancy while behind bars. Their birth stories were horrifying—Kimberly Mays, who gave birth while incarcerated in Washington—was handcuffed to a hospital gurney. When she asked for pain relief, a nurse actually told her to shut up and pushed her hand against Kimberly’s mouth and nose, blocking her airways. Not a single person—hospital worker or accompanying prison guard—came to Kimberly’s defense. I’ll bet they would have had Kimberly not been a prisoner.
These attacks are a gendered way of heaping more punishment onto people in women’s prisons, the majority of whom are women of color. We have to remember that the United States has a long history of coerced sterilization of women of color that reaches as late as the 1960s and 1970s. Medical staff often lied to women about the procedure, assuring them that it was reversible, or simply did not tell them that an additional procedure had been added to their prescheduled surgery. Coercing sterilization of women inside prisons is a way to continue these attacks out of the public eye.
Let’s also remember that people in men’s prisons were not offered, let alone coerced into, sterilization regardless of how many children they have.
The report seems to have spurred some much-needed public outcry and, hopefully, action. On Wednesday, July 10, California lawmakers called for an investigation. Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Redondo Beach, chairman of the Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee sent a request to California’s Medical Board to investigate the physicians who had been involved in sterilizing the state’s incarcerated women. Lieu also requested that the board provide the state legislature with recommendations to prevent future unauthorized surgical procedures on patients.
For the nearly 250 women who had been sterilized since the late 1990s in the California prison system, however, it’s too late for outcry and protections. This month has seen a lot of coverage about the attacks on reproductive rights in various legislatures, but analyses and conversations have rarely stretched even further to include reproductive justice for all people, including those behind prison walls. Had reproductive rights advocates been extending their discussions, outrage and organizing to include women in prison, perhaps this travesty could have been caught–and stopped–sooner. Can we learn from these experiences and move forward to push for reproductive justice for all people? Or will we be shocked when yet another state prison system is found to be grossly violating women’s reproductive rights?
Photo: The California Institute for Women in Corona, California. Courtesy California Department of Corrections.