If the 11-hour filibuster over abortion rights in Texas counts as a step forward for women, the exposure of two California prisons that performed nearly 150 sterilizations on female inmates is a staggering lunge back.
The Center for Investigative Reporting released a story on Sunday, July 7 revealing that between 2006 and 2010, doctors hired by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation tied the tubes of 148 incarcerated women, some through coercive methods. Because it is against the law to fund inmate sterilization with federal money, the state of California paid for these procedures. All of the surgeries took place without their receiving mandated approval from the state. The doctors were paid just under $150,000 to do them.
Proximity from the site of these sterilizations did not lessen the impact they made among organizations that work to prevent them from happening. Tamar Kraft-Stolar serves as the director of the Women in Prison Project, a branch of the Correctional Association of New York, which offers incarcerated women social services and pushes for legislation that protects their rights. Though she has worked with WIPP for 10 years, she was still shocked to learn of the sterilizations in California.
“We often see the worst of what happens in the state prison system, and at the same time, this is particularly horrifying given the trauma, the injustice, the long-term impact. It’s a horror at what happened, and at the conditions that allowed this to happen,” she said. “Once you dehumanize someone, it becomes easier to violate their rights.”
Kraft-Stolar also talked about the unique obstacles imprisoned women face when it comes to making well-informed decisions about their health.
“In any corrections setting, there’s a particular power dynamic that’s at play,” she said. “If a prison doctor recommends a treatment, the woman might fear asking too many questions and receiving punishment, or forming a bad rapport with a doctor she will have to see for the duration of her term.” She added that these women are unable to use the Internet to check symptoms or confer with other women about health questions and issues—luxuries many who are not in prison have.
While this news dealt a tough blow to those advocating for reproductive freedom for all women, it is not new; the United States has a long, contested history of assuming control over women’s bodies, particularly when it comes to working-class and minority women.
It began in the early 1900s with eugenics, the belief that society was responsible for weeding out individuals deemed unfit by preventing them from having children. This often meant men and women who were disabled, of a low-income household and ethnic and racial minorities. Margaret Sanger, who established Planned Parenthood in 1916, was also a eugenicist and eventually used Planned Parenthood’s contraceptive services as a way to sterilize patients, often without their consent. Between 1909 and 1963, more than 60,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized; more than one-third of those sterilizations took place in California. Some states, like North Carolina, have awarded victims of sterilization with monetary reparations in recent years. California has yet to offer such a compensation.
During that time, the U.S. also approved sterilizations of women in Puerto Rico after acquiring the island as a commonwealth in 1898. In response to fears of rapid population growth and economic distress in Puerto Rico, the U.S. government enacted a law in 1937 that denied women the opportunity to receive information about alternative contraceptive methods and allowed physicians to sterilize them without asking the women’s permission. By 1968, more than 30 percent of the female population in Puerto Rico had been sterilized.
As the injustices continued into the 1970s, the idea of cleansing the world of its unwanted citizens morphed to mean, almost exclusively, preventing Black women from becoming mothers.
In 1972, a group of medical students in New England spoke out against these unethical practices. The Boston Globe published a front-page story that year exposing the Boston City Hospital for its disproportional use of African-American women as the subjects of hysterectomy operations for medical students.
Alabama was the site of a controversial sterilization case the following year. Minnie and Mary Alice Relf, 12 and 14 years old, respectively, went in for what they thought was a routine birth control injection. The sisters, both African-American, were also mentally disabled. Without their knowledge or consent, a physician sterilized the girls. The Relf sisters’ mother was also uninformed of the procedure. She was illiterate and was manipulated into agreeing to her daughters’ sterilization by marking a collection of paperwork with an “x,” which counted as her signature. The ensuing court case, Relf v. Weinberger, resulted in the district court outlawing the use of federal funds for the sterilization of unknowing patients.
Since then, feminist and human rights organizations across the country have mobilized to prevent the repetition of this dark history; the Women in Prison Project in New York is but one. Kraft-Stolar talked about the different initiatives WIPP has afforded to women in New York over the years, particularly ones that educate them about their health.