"He made me feel like a bad mother if I didn’t do it": California bans forced sterilizations in prison

A new law is signed after an investigative report revealed dozens of unlawfully performed sterilizations

Published September 26, 2014 3:56PM (EDT)

This week, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that bans forced sterilizations in state prisons. The new law makes the practice of sterilizing incarcerated people without their knowledge or consent illegal, "except when required for the immediate preservation of life in an emergency medical situation or when medically necessary." Prisons in the state are also now required to report the number of people who are sterilized while incarcerated.

The measure was introduced last year by state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson after a report from the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that women in California prisons had been sterilized after being coerced or misled by their doctors. Between 2005 and 2010, 144 women were sterilized, and nearly a third of those women underwent the procedure without their lawful consent. According to the one of the women interviewed during CIR's investigation, a doctor at Valley State Prison repeatedly pressured her to agree to a tubal ligation after he found out that she had other children. “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 Christina Cordero. “He made me feel like a bad mother if I didn’t do it.”

That doctor, James Heinrich, told CIR that the money the state spent on sterilization was minimal “compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children -- as they procreated more.”

Kimberly, another woman who was pregnant and seen by Heinrich while incarcerated, told Oakland-based advocacy group Justice Now that Heinrich had pressured her to undergo sterilization after telling her that she had two fibroid tumors "the size of grapefruits." She said that she was pressured once again to have the procedure right before she had a C-section performed. She declined the procedure both times. After leaving prison, Kimberly saw another physician to get a second opinion on Heinrich's diagnosis. That physician did not find any tumors.

Heinrich retired from Valley State in 2011, but was rehired as a contract physician through December 2012.

But the violations of women's reproductive rights weren't (and aren't) limited to forced sterilization. Other women shared stories of being denied prenatal and postnatal care while incarcerated. In addition to pushing legislation to ban the practice of forced sterilization in state prisons, Jackson was among several advocates and lawmakers to push for an audit of the prisons. She also signed on to a letter calling for an investigation into the physicians involved in the sterilizations and other alleged violations.

“Based upon the auditor’s report, the problem is far more systemic,” Jackson said in June, after a state-requested audit revealed the extent of the violations. “We now have clear proof that the prison environment is an environment where consent simply cannot be obtained in a responsible, reliable manner for these procedures.”

Sheri, another woman who was sterilized without her knowledge and consent while incarcerated in California, framed the issue more bluntly in an interview with Justice Now: "Prison is another form of violence against women."


By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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Forced Sterilization Justice Prison Reform Prisoners' Rights Reproductive Justice Women's Rights