Sterilization for women in prison : reproductive rights and choices of female inmates under pressure and coercion
Starting in 2006, Christina Cordero spent two years in California’s Valley State Prison for Women for auto theft. She arrived at the prison pregnant and was taken to see the the prison OB-GYN James Heinrich. “As soon as he found out that I had five kids, he suggested that I look into getting it done. The closer I got to my due date, the more he talked about it,” said Cordero, now age 34. Cordero finally agreed to the procedure before being released in 2008. “Today,” she said, “I wish I would have never had it done.”
Cordero is one of nearly 250 women who have been sterilized while in the California prison system over the last few decades. While millions of eyes were focused on reproductive-rights debates happening in Texas, Wisconsin, and North Carolina this month, the Center for Investigative Reporting released a report that revealed nearly 150 women were sterilized in California prisons from 2006 to 2010 without proper state oversight. According to state documents, approximately 100 additional women had been sterilized in the late 1990s. Several women said Heinrich had pressured them into the operation, sometimes when they were actively in labor or on the operating table for a C-section.
In his defense, Dr. Heinrich told the Center for Investigative Reporting that the $147,000 spent on sterilizing inmates was minimal “compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children—as they procreated more.”
Heinrich’s comment reflects the widespread attitude that certain women, such as women in prison (or women in Texas or Wisconsin if you believe those state lawmakers) should not have the right to determine their reproductive choices.
These sterilizations are part of a gamut of reproductive justices facing people in women’s prisons, and not just those in California: until recently, pregnant women in Arizona’s Maricopa County jail had been denied abortions unless they obtained a court order and prepaid transportation and security costs. Such requirements often prevented women from accessing abortions. In most states, childbirth behind bars occurs in shackles and chains.
These attacks are a gendered way of heaping more punishment onto people in women’s prisons, the majority of whom are women of color. We have to remember that the United States has a long history of coerced sterilization of women of color that reaches as late as the 1960s and 1970s. Medical staff often lied to women about the procedure, assuring them that it was reversible, or simply did not tell them that an additional procedure had been added to their prescheduled surgery. Coercing sterilization of women inside prisons is a way to continue these attacks out of the public eye.
Let’s also remember that people in men’s prisons were not offered, let alone coerced into, sterilization regardless of how many children they have.