Our View: Prisons should not have sterilized female inmates

July 8, 2013 

Because of the horrible history of eugenics in California, any hint of forced sterilizations must be taken seriously. Allegations that doctors working for state prisons coerced female inmates into having tubal ligations need a complete and independent accounting.

The Center for Investigative Reporting, in a story published in today's Bee, found that nearly 150 women were sterilized from 2006 to 2010 at the California Institution for Women in Corona or Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla.

Several former inmates and prisoner advocates told CIR that the medical staff pushed pregnant women to sign up for the surgery.

The explanation from doctors and officials is that they wanted to offer prisoners the same reproductive health choices as women on the outside. The federal health receiver's office, which has been in charge of medical care in the 33 state prisons since 2006, says that all the women signed consent forms.

Yet it's because women in prison are so vulnerable to duress that there are strict limits on sterilizations. Federal money cannot be used; if state money is spent, top medical officials have been required to sign off on each case since 1994. That didn't happen, according to the CIR account.

At best, physicians and prison officials displayed an appalling ignorance of the rules. At worst, they betrayed patients' trust — and ventured uncomfortably close to past abuses in which forced sterilization was used to stop criminals, the mentally ill and the poor from having more children.

The health receiver's office says that once it found out the procedures had been occurring, they were stopped. "Since 2010, we have closely monitored activity, all medical staff have been trained on policies and procedures, and there have been no further tubal ligations," a spokeswoman told The Sacramento Bee's editorial board in an email Monday.

Still, the full extent of what went wrong needs to be determined. An inquiry should look at whether anyone ought to have been disciplined and should make sure all the necessary safeguards are in place.

Unfortunately, it's not clear who would do the investigation. The attorney general's office referred queries to the Office of the Inspector General, which monitors state prisons. But it says it doesn't have jurisdiction over this medical procedure.

In 1979, the Legislature rightly banned forced sterilizations. There can be no backsliding whatsoever.

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