Female Inmates Illegally Sterilized in California Prisons

When it comes to reproductive rights, women are often denied the freedom to make their own decisions. While laws banning abortion and limiting birth control might be common, it's still shocking to hear that women were forcibly and illegally sterilized in California prisons as recent as 2010.  An alarming report from the Center of Investigative Reporting revealed that two women's prisons in California signed nearly 150 pregnant women up for permanent sterilization to be performed after they gave birth, without following the required state approval procedure.

At least 148 women at the California Institution for Women in Corona and Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla received tubal ligation, a surgical procedure for permanent sterilization in which a woman's fallopian tubes are closed. Claiming that they were trying to help women who faced health risks in future pregnancies because of past Caesarean sections, doctors reportedly coerced female inmates into getting the procedure. The doctors targeted pregnant women whom they felt were likely to return to the prison in the future.

The women in these prisons weren't even informed that they had a choice; instead they were harassed by doctors who failed to explain the medical necessity. Some doctors even went as far as pressuring an inmate while she was "sedated and strapped to a surgical table for a C-section," as in the case of Kimberly Jeffrey, a former inmate. It's against the law to pressure a female inmate to have the procedure during labor, but doctors went ahead and managed to convince many women who weren't aware that they had the right to say no and who now regret having the surgery.

As it is illegal to use federal funding for such a procedure, the California prisons used state funds instead. Since 1994, the procedure has required approval from top medical officials in Sacramento on a case-by-case basis. However, no tubal ligation requests were presented to the health care committee responsible for approving such restricted surgeries, according to Dr. Ricki Barnett, who tracks medical services and costs for the California Prison Health Care Receivership Corp.

From 1997 to 2010, the state paid doctors almost $150,000 to perform the procedures. When interviewed, Valley State Prison's OB-GYN, Dr. James Heinrich, denied pressuring the inmates and dismissed the amount of money as minimal, saying, "Over a 10-year period, that isn't a huge amount of money compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children — as they procreated more."

Dr. Heinrich talks about the inmates as if they were less than human, and it's especially wrong for him to refer to any future children as "unwanted," implying that these women don't know what's best for them. Former Valley State prison inmate Crystal Nguyen, upon overhearing medical staff pressuring pregnant inmates, stated, "Do they think they're animals, and they don't want them to breed anymore?"

Sadly, when it comes to reproductive rights, women are often treated like animals. Their opinions are neglected while the government sees fit to decide what should be done on matters like abortion, parenthood, birth control, and in this case, forced sterilization.

Not only are these tubal procedures unethical, but they're also blatantly illegal, and could spark numerous lawsuits. Such procedures are reminiscent of California's troubling history of eugenics, a practice that once impacted the poor, the disabled, minorities, and the mentally ill. One would expect forced sterilization to be a thing of the past or something only affecting developing countries, not an issue that could still concern American women.