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Modern Eugenics: Inmates Trade Time of Sentences for Sterilization

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Eugenics—or the compelled use of birth control or sterilization to weed certain traits out of the human gene pool—is a concept that one doesn’t expect to hear about in the 21st century. It is a completely discredited concept that is, at best, terribly immoral and unscientific, and, at worst, a way of dehumanizing entire populations.

Unfortunately, law enforcement officials in White County, Tennessee, apparently haven’t progressed nearly as far as the rest of the nation, and have decided to implement a program to incentivize sterilization for inmates at the local jail. In exchange for getting a vasectomy (which is permanent) or a long term birth control implant, men and women incarcerated in the county jail can reduce their sentences by a month.

While the program is ostensibly voluntary, the simple fact is that prisons have extraordinary power to compel inmates to participate in such “voluntary” programs, and for this reason inmates are often deemed unable to give informed consent for certain types of medical treatments. There is a presumption that they could be under duress, thus it is unethical for medical professionals to conduct certain services on inmates that they could for free people. Currently, 70 inmates have been sterilized by medical personnel working for the Tennessee Department of Health and there is no indication that this will stop any time soon.  

While some may look at this and think that it is racially charged (and this is reasonable given that past prison sterilization programs were deeply ingrained with racism and targeted poor people of color), the simple fact is that 97% of the county is white. Data is not available on the racial breakdown of inmates under the supervision of White County Corrections, but the heterogeneity of the county suggests that race is likely not a significant factor here.

This program is not only unconstitutional (Skinner v Oklahoma determined that sterilizing criminals violates the equal protection clause) and immoral, but it is a throwback to the time when people actually supported the idea that certain types of people are unfit to reproduce, thus should be eliminated from the gene pool. This is an extremely dangerous precedent and it is untenable for a public agency to endorse this type of program.

There are private organizations, such as Project Prevention, which pay addicts to voluntary be sterilized, and these are based on the same dangerous mindset, but they are categorically different because they are not representing the public or targeting a captive population.

Judge Benninfield, who signed off on the program and is one of its most vocal supporters, argues that this will reduce the number of children born to parents addicted to drugs. His stance on this program eerily mimics those of the 20th century eugenicists, who sought to reduce the number of children born to such “undesirables” as the mentally retarded and “habitual” criminals.

When discussing this type of compelled birth control, it is important to note that nothing I am saying applies to programs that provide sex education or improve the accessibility of birth control for inmates after they leave the custody of law enforcement. These programs can have real benefits when there is no hint of coercion to corrupt them. For example, many prison reentry programs include referrals to Medicaid offices so that inmates have continuous access to care, including birth control, extending from when they leave jail and till they are resituated on the outside.

A moral solution to this terrible situation is simple. This program must end, but we also need to implement a health care system where all Americans have access to affordable reproductive services if they so CHOOSE to take advantage of them, free of coercion. This should start in school, with sex education, and continue through adulthood, where all adults should have access to birth control and STI testing; additionally, all women should have access to gynecological services/screenings and abortion services.

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