A criminal case out of Tennessee involving a mentally ill woman, a dead baby, and a controversial plea bargain has reignited debate around the use of sterilizations as a bargaining chip in negotiations, particularly when they involve poor defendants.
Jasmine Randers, 36-year-old woman at the center of the case, had been charged with neglect after the mysterious death of her five-day-old baby during a trip to Tennessee. The defense attorney assigned to her case said that the prosecutor wouldn’t go forward with a plea deal to keep Randers out of prison unless she agreed to undergo the surgical procedure that would make her permanently infertile.
The Associated Press reports that in addition to Randers, there have been at least three other similar cases in Tennessee over the last five years — suggesting that the practice is not an uncommon as most Americans might assume.
Since finding out about those deals, Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk has removed the assistant district attorney from Randers’ case and ordered lawyers in his office not to seek sterilization, arguing that the state shouldn’t intrude in the private lives of defendants when trying to levy justice. Now Funk has embarked on a mission to end the use coerced sterilization in plea negotiations, a practice that has been in place across the United States long before he entered office.
“The history of sterilization in this country is that it is applied to the most despised people — criminals and the people we’re most afraid of, the mentally ill — and the one thing that that these two groups usually share is that they are the most poor,” Paul Lombardo, a law professor and historian who teaches at Georgia State University, told the Associated Press. “That is what we’ve done in the past, and that’s a good reason not to do it now,” he added.
Sterilization emerged in the United States since the early 20th century as part of an effort to increase the presence of what were deemed “desirable” human characteristics. This method of population control came out of the Eugenics movement that grew in Europe and later the United States. Since the inception of forced sterilization laws, members of many marginalized groups have been robbed of their ability to procreate. North Carolina’s eugenics board, for example, disproportionately targeted poor women of color within a 45-year period, driven by a belief that these groups were “poor, uneducated, black, [and] mentally retarded.”
At the height of its use, more than 30 states had adopted forced sterilizations, carrying out the procedure on the mentally disabled and those considered to be “socially disadvantaged,” including the poor and people of color. Such was the case for Latinas in California’s mental health system, a group that accounted for more than 20 percent of patient sterilizations between 1910 and the 1979. In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon expanded the use of the practice with the passage of a law that would allow the forced sterilization of women of color in low-income communities.
By the time the practice was outlawed in the 1970s, more than 60,000 disabled people have been sterilized under compulsory sterilization laws. Experts say the number could be much higher due in part to a dearth of public records in some states about surgical and nonsurgical procedures carried out since it was legalized.
“For much of the 20th century, people — usually women — in American prisons and mental institutions were subjected to forced sterilization,” Paul Campos, professor of law at the University of Colorado, wrote in TIME Magazine in 2013. “In an infamous 1927 Supreme Court opinion, Oliver Wendell Holmes enthusiastically approved of this practice, saying of the coerced tubal ligation of a teenaged girl that “three generations of imbeciles are enough’ [though] the evidence for the girl’s “imbecility” consisted of the fact that she had had a child out of wedlock after being raped by a relative.”
While it’s now considered to be violation of human rights, forced sterilization remains a tool in controlling the fertility of poor women, particularly those in the prison system. A 2013 report by the Center for Investigative Studies showed that nearly 150 female inmates in a California prison received tubal ligation against their will within a four-year period. These women underwent the procedure without any explanation and case-by-case approval by a state-appointed review committee. Shortly after the case went public, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill banning prisons from sterilizing inmates without their consent.
Other publicized cases include that of a 21-year-old single mother of three in West Virginia who agreed to have her tubes tied in 2009 as part of her probation after she pled guilty to possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. Last year, a Virginia man who fathered children with several women underwent a vasectomy as part of a plea deal in a child endangerment case. In each situation, prosecutors didn’t entertain any possibility of a reduced sentence if alleged offenders didn’t agree to undergo the procedure.
Balancing the rights of vulnerable women with efforts to prevent unintended pregnancy are complicated. Even before the news broke about Tennessee’s plea bargains, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys encouraged lawyers to seek alternatives to incarceration in cases of child abuse or death — like the use of birth control devices that are effective during the offender’s probation. That idea, too, has drawn controversy.
Randers has dealt with mental illness for 20 years. Her public defender, Mary-Kathryn Harcombe, has complained about the aggressive negotiation tactics employed by Brian Holmgren, the child prosecutor assigned to her case. “Any time a woman is given a choice between prison and this surgery, that is inherently coercive, even in cases where there is no mental illness,” Harcombe told a Nashville ABC affiliate last weekend.
Efforts to control the reproductive lives of low-income women and women of color have inconspicuously maintained their place in public policy. Earlier this month, for example, Arkansas State Rep. Kim Hammer introduced a bill that would give mothers on Medicaid an incentive to get an intrauterine device — a long-acting form of contraception — so they can take “a little bit of a breather to think about their life decisions that are affecting us as taxpayers.”
Those types of family planning policies walk a fine line; as a recent report from the Guttmacher Institute noted, as advocates work to expand access to long-lasting contraception, “they cannot ignore the historical context of coercive practices related to contraception, especially those targeting disadvantaged groups.”
The legacy of forced sterilization can also be found in the choice that a significant number of women of color make to voluntarily undergo the procedure. A 2011 report by Urban Indian Health Institute, for example, showed high rates of sterilization among American Indian and Alaskan Native women compared to their white counterparts. Common reasons include concern about how they would financially support their offspring and in some cases, their dismal living conditions. However, with a host of available contraceptive options, public health experts contend that a knowledge gap has caused this group to falsely infer that sterilization is the most suitable choice.