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At Least 150 Women Illegally Sterilized in California's Prisons

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Prisoner in handcuffs (Photo by Africa Studio via Shutterstock)
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California has a dark history (admired by Nazis!) of sterilizing at least 20,000 people who were deemed too poor, too drunk, too promiscuous, too criminal or too feebleminded to reproduce between 1909 and 1964. But a recent investigation finds that even in the 21st century, some female inmates are still being pressured to undergo tubal tubal ligation.An investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that between between 2006 and 2010, 150 women underwent tubal tubal ligation without the required state approval for the procedure. (And the investigation assumes that those numbers might be higher if they included numbers from the 1990s.)

While some women said they were pleased with the procedure, others said they felt pressured. Some were never given a medical reason, and medical experts say suggesting a reversible procedure like getting an IUD is much more standard. Christina Cordero, 34, gave birth to a baby boy in October 2006 while she was in prison serving a sentence for auto theft. She said that once the institution's OB-GYN Dr. James Heinrich found out that she had five kids, he suggested that she have the procedure done.

Cordero told the Center, "The closer I got to my due date, the more he talked about it. He made me feel like a bad mother if I didn’t do it." She agreed, but now that she's out of prison, she says she regrets her decision: "Today, I wish I would have never had it done."

Some were even pressured to get a tubal tubal ligation on the operating table. Kimberly Jeffrey, 43, was asked if she wanted the procedure while she was sedated. Though she resisted, she said that the experience jarred her: "Being treated like I was less than human produced in me a despair."

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The practice of forced sterilization was technically banned in 1979. Federal dollars aren't allowed to be used to pay for sterilization procedures in prison—in part because there is concern that prisoners might feel pressured to comply. Since 1994, there is supposed to be approval on a case-by-case basis from top medical officials. But since then, the state hasn't officially approved a single procedure—although there have been at least 150 cases.

A medical receiver in California found out that these unauthorized sterilizations were going on in 2006. But nothing was done to halt the practice until an advocacy group in Oakland complained to state Sen. Carol Liu (D-Glendale). Barnett told doctors to halt the procedure, but she received blowback.

Dr. Heinrich doesn't feel like he has anything to apologize for and believes that he has offered high-quality health care to these women. He told the Center for Investigative Reporting, "They all wanted it done. If they come a year or two later saying, 'Somebody forced me to have this done,' that’s a lie. That’s somebody looking for the state to give them a handout." He added, "My guess is that the only reason you do that is not because you feel wronged, but that you want to stay on the state’s dole somehow."

And Heinrich says that even though the procedure is costly at $147,460, he looks at the procedure as a service for the state, "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."

Related:
Heinous History: California Forced Sterilization of Poor, Drunk, Crazy People