Bioethics Blogs

Sterilization for Prisoners Is Not New and Shows That Studying History is Essential

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

In 1927, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled that Carrie Buck and her baby could be sterilized because of a perception that they were “mental defectives.” In the 20th century, 32 states had federally funded programs that sterilized “undesirable” populations. Approximately 60,000 people in the U.S. were sterilized without their consent or even knowledge of the procedure. This history made an unexpected reappearance last week when a Tennessee judge offered to reduce the jail sentences of prisoners if they underwent sterilization.

The inmates were offered vasectomies (males) or contraceptive implants (females) in exchange for him shaving 30 days off of their prison sentences. The offer was popular as 70 inmates signed up (32 women and 38 men). The inmates were convicted of drug offenses and Judge Sam Benningfield said he was offering them “an opportunity to take personal responsibility and give them a chance, when they do get out, to not to be burdened with children…This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves.”

The primary purpose in this was to try to reduce the number of children born drug dependent or suffering the consequence of in vitro drug exposure…the number of children who would eventually wind up in foster care,” the Judge said in a statement. He claims that the offer was “strictly voluntary…no one is forced to participate…it is no way a eugenic program.” Of course, the Judge presumes that inmates have true freedom of choice in this matter.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.