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Lawmakers Want Answers About Circumstances Of Prison Sterilizations

California lawmakers Wednesday unanimously approved a request for an audit of the legally questionable practice of sterilizing women inmates. As Health Care Reporter Pauline Bartolone tells us from Sacramento, experts say it is part of the state’s dark history with a discredited social philosophy.

Kimberly Jeffrey combs her son Noel’s hair in her San Francisco living room.

She meets his energy with calm and adoration.

Noel’s birth was not an easy time. While Kimberly was pregnant, she served a 6 month sentence at a state prison for petty theft. When it came time to deliver Noel through a ceasarian-section, Kimberly was also confronted with the prospect of sterilization.

Jeffrey said “As I was laying on the operating table, moments before I went into surgery, he had made a statement, I am not even quite sure if he was actually talking or if he was just making a general statement to all the medical staff, that, ok we’re going to do this tubal libation. And I said hey, I don’t want procedures done outside the c-section."

Jeffrey refused the tubal ligation, but since 1997, hundreds of women inmates have undergone the procedure which is supposed to be prohibited for California prisoners. California lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they’re appalled.

Democratic State Senator Hannah Beth Jackson spoke at a legislative hearing on the issue.

"And making sure that these antiquated notions and almost barbaric concepts are no longer part of our lexicon..." she said.

Jackson is with the Legislative Women’s Caucus, which called for an immediate investigation. In response, the federal receiver for prison health care, Clark Kelso, produced a 1999 memo directing prison health care managers to include tubal ligation in post-partum care.

Kelso says “We don’t know why – it‘s very long ago – we don’t know why that particular decision was reached…but that was what doctors in the field were told.”

After a court ruled human rights abuses were taking place under state leadership, a federal court took control of California prison health care. Yet, even under federal authority, the prohibited procedures continued.

“It seemed to me we had a real conflict of direction from headquarters," she said.

Lawmakers say they’re also concerned about the possibility of coercion. Senator Jackson wants the audit to reveal more about the circumstances of inmate consent.

“We also want to find out who are the women who have been sterilized while in prison? Let’s break them down by race, by economic situation, by age, by number of children they have.”

Jackson says California law should ensure proper consent for sterilization. ”One could argue almost by definition that being incarcerated takes away your ability to voluntarily consent."

There’s a reason these sterilizations have caused such alarm. Alex Minna Stern with the University of Michigan says California has a unique legacy of eugenics, a social philosophy that discourages reproduction of people with less desirable characteristics.

“As a historian, I view this as the latest chapter in this long history.” Stern says a third of all involuntary sterilizations performed nationally under eugenics laws occurred in California, which repealed its eugenics law in 1979. Still, she says, the recent practice in prison has eugenic overtones.

“Eugenics, as much as it was about hereditary control, it was also about social control. So it saught to control those and then deprive the reproductive ability those who are identified as problem people in society, so those who were identified as sexually deviant, as you know, a burden on the state, as morons, as feeble-minded.”

But California prison officials say the medically unnecessary procedures stopped in 2010. Lawmakers hope an audit will prevent coerced sterilizations in the future.

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