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As North Carolina becomes the first state to agree to provide financial compensation to people who suffered under government-run sterilization programs, the California Legislature is finally grappling with reports of modern-day sterilization abuse in its prison system.

Confronting Eugenics in the Tar Heel State

Governor Pat McCrory signed the budget crafted by the North Carolina Legislature, which inlcudes $10 million for people who were sterilized under an aggressive state campaign to extinguish the fertility of people whom social workers, doctors, and government officials deemed unfit to reproduce.

The state of North Carolina sterilized more than 7,000 people – including some as young as 9 or 10 years old – between 1929 and 1974. Elaine Riddick was one of them. Raped in 1967 at the age of 13, she became pregnant and gave birth to her one and only child in the hospital – and was sterilized immediately after delivering him because those with power deemed her “promiscuous.”

They also labeled her “mentally retarded,” perhaps because she was poor, African American, and living with her grandmother while her mother served time in prison. Riddick raised her son and earned a degree from a technical college – proving wrong those who had unilaterally changed her life forever.

Many of the people who were sterilized have already died and a monetary payment cannot make up for what the state has taken away. Still, the compensation fund represents a different level of accountability than any other state government has demonstrated.

About three-fifths of the states, including California, enforced some type of compulsory sterilization during the 20th century. A wave of activism and lawsuits in the 1970s finally led to federal regulations to safeguard people from these coercive practices.

The regulations aim to protect low-income people from threats that they will lose public assistance if they do not agree to go under the knife and also to protect people who are vulnerable because they have been institutionalized by the government.

Rights Violations in the Golden State

Yesterday, the Public Safety Committee of the California State Senate held a hearing to gather information on unethical and illegal sterilizations of women in the state prison system.

While the details are still emerging, we know that between 2006 and 2010 at least 148 women had tubal ligations while they were in prison custody, typically when they were in a local hospital to give birth.

Among other issues, the legislators and witnesses discussed the state corrections department regulation that explicitly prohibits sterilization unless “medically necessary.” Other than fertility control, there is no medical reason to undergo a tubal ligation.

Despite this, doctors in at least two prisons repeatedly suggested to women that they should undergo the procedure.

As Misty Rojo explained, “You really feel like you’re under coercion. You feel like if the doctors are telling you to do it, you should do it, whether you feel like you should or not.” Rojo testified on behalf of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.

A human rights organization called Justice Now has been working for years to document and expose the sterilizations. The issue finally got traction with two stories by the Center for Investigative Reporting that build on Justice Now’s research and contacts with people who have come home and can say firsthand what happens inside prison walls.

Center reporter Corey Johnson also interviewed prison officials and personnel. James Heinrich, an OB/GYN who worked at Valley State Prison for Women, told Johnson that the cost of the sterilizations “isn’t a huge amount of money compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children – as they procreated more.”

Not only does Heinrich assume that any children imprisoned women might have in the future would be unwanted, he justifies circumventing policies against sterilization as saving the state money – exactly the type of dehumanizing rationale that policymakers and courts repudiated more than 30 years ago.

Learn More

Click here and scroll down for NBC’s interviews with Elaine Riddick, who was sterilized at age 13 and became an advocate for redress; former Governor Beverly Perdue,  who supports the compensation and has asked people to come forward; and Professor Johanna Schoen, whose research and advocacy helped to bring about the North Carolina Legislature’s decision to address the issue (see her book Choice and Coercion here).

Click here to go to Justice Now’s website, read the organization’s findings on sterilization abuse in California prisons, and watch videos of women describing their experiences. Click here and here for the Center for Investigative Reporting stories and here for the Center’s coverage of the hearing.

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