State Sterilization: Alive and Well in America

Recent investigations by the Associated Press into the practices of Tennessee prosecutors during plea-deal negotiations have alerted Americans to one of their government’s most gruesome and supposedly forbidden traditions: forced prisoner sterilization.

According to AP reporter Sheila Burke, a recent example of this practice involved a mentally ill Tennessee woman whose infant child died under “mysterious” circumstances. In the course of plea negotiations, the prosecutor reportedly would not take incarceration off the table unless the woman agreed to sterilization surgery.

“Nashville prosecutors have made sterilization of women part of plea negotiations at least four times in the past five years,” Burke wrote.

Sterilization isn’t confined to the Nashville District Attorney’s office, either. Between 2006 and 2010, some 150 female prisoners in the California prison system were sterilized, causing Governor Jerry Brown to sign a bill banning the practice. Just last year, North Carolina passed a bill that would finally provide restitution to victims of its eugenics program which operated as recently as 1976, though the bill fails to compensate many living sterilization victims whose procedures occurred outside the direct purview of the North Carolina Eugenics Board.

Perhaps the most notorious endorsement of state-sponsored sterilization came from United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who infamously wrote in his 1927 Buck v. Bell decision, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The Supreme Court voted 8-1 in Buck to uphold Virginia’s compulsory sterilization program for those the state saw as unfit to reproduce. Despite being regarded as one of the worst Supreme Court decisions of all time, Buck has never been overturned.

Though past generations often justified state-coerced sterilization on such grounds as “purifying the gene pool,” today’s sterilization supporters would no doubt cite “public safety” as their rationale. Parents who consistently put their children in danger should be prevented from having more children; it’s that simple, they say. And by citing tragic and sometimes disturbing infanticide cases, they do not often find themselves lacking support.

But even as a public safety measure, sterilization represents the state at its most appalling. The government – any government – mandating permanent bodily harm upon those accused of crimes is the stuff of dystopian science fiction. Under the guise of preventing future child abuse, state sterilization is passed off as proactive criminal justice. In reality, it is nothing more than “precrime,” straight out of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report. It is also a clear violation of due process, regardless of what the men in black robes declare.

As disturbing as state-coerced sterilization is, it should not come as a surprise to those who have watched the doctor-patient relationship steadily erode with increased state involvement in medicine. Dr. Thomas Szasz explained that patient privacy withered in direct correlation to the state’s participation in medicine. As medicine evolved from a purely private, one-on-one, doctor-patient interaction, into a multi-layered, patient-doctor-state-corporate transaction, competing interests began to insert themselves more and more thoroughly into the relationship. Today’s doctors must report to insurance companies, courts, lawyers, government bureaucracies, child welfare agencies, and a host of other third parties, as those entities dictate the terms of medical treatment.

Dr. Leonardo Conti, Germany’s “Health Leader” during the Third Reich, had similar far-reaching ambitions for the healthcare system he oversaw. His was a regime that required “[t]herapy…be administered in the interests of the race and society rather than of the sick individual.” That transformation took place long ago in the American healthcare system. When state and corporate interests worm their way into healthcare, individual patients’ mental health and reproductive rights become subject to the perverse whims of a power-hungry managerial class. Abhorrent practices like coerced sterilization morph into routine “treatment,” albeit with bureaucrats and lawyers holding the scalpel.

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