Last month, news broke that a Tennessee judge issued a standing order offering inmates a 30-day sentence reduction if they underwent a permanent birth control procedure: vasectomies for men, or a 4-year birth control implant (Nexplanon) for women. Though the program is technically voluntary, media pointed to it as a form of coercion that forces inmates into sterilization. The American Civil Liberties Union agreed, arguing that the program “violates the fundamental constitutional right to reproductive autonomy.”
But the media missed a key piece of context in its outcry: Programs like this aren’t actually unusual. The United States has a long history of forcibly sterilizing people, and it never really stopped.
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Starting in 1907, state governments sanctioned sterilization as a form of eugenics, to prevent anyone with undesirable traits—disabilities, poverty, a criminal record, specific racial backgrounds—from procreating. This type of legislation justified the sterilization of approximately 60,000 Americans until the laws were phased out in the late 1970s. But that doesn’t mean the practice actually ended: In 2013, the Center for Investigative Reporting found that at least 148 female inmates in California received tubal ligations without their consent between 2006 and 2010. Just one year later, the Associated Press reported on at least four instances of prosecutors in Nashville including birth control requirements in plea deals.
Other recent examples of court-required sterilization throughout the country include a 21-year-old West Virginia mother who had her tubes tied as part of her probation for marijuana possession (2009), and a man in Virginia who traded a vasectomy for a lighter child endangerment sentence (2014). “We’re starting to reach a point where the courts are responsible for anyone,” explained one prosecutor involved in a Florida plea deal. “It’s one final step to have to supervise teenagers in sexual relationships they aren’t ready to handle.”
The prosecutors in each of the recent cases lean on a classic conservative talking point to justify this paternalism: the need for “personal responsibility.” Judge Sam Benningfield, who is behind the recent sterilization program in Tennessee, used those exact words in his justification: “I hope to encourage them to take personal responsibility … This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves.”
It is strange to think that these prosecutors and judges do not connect “responsibility” to “autonomy,” and stranger still that they see no connection between the personal and the systemic. At the core of each of these stories is an individual whose body was violated. But these plea deals tap into a historical pattern of abuse against people of color, LGBTQ people, people with physical and mental illness, and those living in poverty. Instead of acknowledging the systemic failure and offering basic supports to the communities most likely to bear the brunt of these policies, they are punished in one of the most dehumanizing ways imaginable.
This disconnect is threaded through the conservative platform on reproductive justice. Campaign promises to defund Planned Parenthood, an organization providing affordable family planning services, have become canon for the GOP. Eighty-five percent of Planned Parenthood patients have an income at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level. Defunding these clinics would have a profound and disparate impact on those living in poverty, communities of color, rural communities, and the LGBTQ community. Many of these patients often do not have access to alternative providers for reproductive health care—including cancer screenings like pap smears and breast exams, sexual health education, sexually transmitted infection testing and treatment, and contraception. These clinics empower patients to make their own reproductive decisions, but conservatives are on a crusade to take away their agency while simultaneously spouting rhetoric about individual responsibility. The contradiction appears to escape their notice.
Marginalized communities do not suffer from a lack of personal responsibility. They suffer from a lack of resources and support. Instead of dismantling organizations that serve these communities and leaving it to the criminal justice system to serve as the arbiter of family planning, let’s support the institutions and policies that empower and build capacity for self-determination.