Just a quick note to let you know about Alexandra Minna Stern’s recent interview on Capital Radio, discussing the California sterilization case. Her work appears frequently on Genotopia—she’s one of the smartest historians discussing this important case.
“Eugenics is old history, kind of scary to read about but reassuringly far in the past. We don’t really need to know about that, right, professor? Right???”
Sorry kids. It’s going to be on the exam. The discussion over the California prison sterilizations continues. Today, the Huffington Post carries a compassionate and well-informed historical essay by Alexandra Stern, who Genotopia readers know as a distinguished historian of eugenics and genetic counseling. “Many of the stereotypes that fueled 20th century sterilization abuse remain in vogue today,” she points out.
Dr. James Heinrich, who performed tubal ligations of women in prisons, stated that this practice saved the state money because his involuntary clients were likely to have “unwanted children as they procreated more.” Such a callous attitude could have been uttered by superintendents in the 1930s, who worried about the economic burden of “defectives,” or by the obstetrician at USC/LA County who purportedly spoke to his staff about “how low we can cut the birth rate of the Negro and Mexican populations in Los Angeles County.”
She concludes, “It is time to break the cycle of reproductive injustice in California, and to challenge the continuing potency of eugenic rationales of cost-saving and societal betterment that have undergirded compulsory or unauthorized sterilizations. The 21st century calls for a new era of human rights, institutional oversight, and the protection of vulnerable populations.” I should also point out the two excellent posts on the California sterilization fiasco over at Nursing Clio, one by Tina Kibbe, the other by Adam Turner.
At the other end of the country, North Carolina lawmakers are currently finalizing this year’s budget plan, and it includes $10M for victims of the state’s eugenic sterilization program, which reached its peak in the 1940s and 1950s. Claude Nash Herndon, a physician and medical geneticist who I feature in my book, was one of the leaders of the program. He was by all accounts a kind man and a good doctor. He also had the beliefs common to prosperous white people in the South in that period, and the paternalistic attitudes common to physicians then. The North Carolina sterilization program was a point of pride for the state. The definitive sources for this chilling story are the Winston-Salem Journal’s series of news articles “Against their Will,” and Johanna Schoen’s thorough, scholarly, and chilling account, Choice and Coercion.
Debate of course rages about this program. Some say money won’t undo the damage, while others say hell yes, it will help. Some ask where the money is going to come from, while others ask why such a small sum is being set aside. There were an estimated 1,800 people sterilized against their will under the program. Tribtown.com shows that if 1,000 come forward with legitimate claims, they will receive $10,000 each. How do you put a price tag on your fertility? Some choose not to have children voluntarily, while for others the prospect of having children is one of the things that gives life meaning.
I personally can never do the math of converting morality into money. But I do believe a cash settlement provides some compensation, gives the victims at least a small sense of justice, and exacts a penalty of public shaming–however late–on a governing body that could have known better.
Is public shaming a valid reason? Does that justify all this attention and money? You bet. Shame should never be used vindictively, but a proper sense of shame is an essential check on antisocial behavior. Aversion to shame is one of the things that ensures civility. Sadly, in the real world, that often involves money, difficult thought it may be to calculate the exchange rate.
[UPDATE: Changed the link from the Sacramento Bee article to the longer report from cironline. h/t Alex Stern.] A quick note on today’s report from the Center for Investigative Reporting that at least 150 pregnant inmates in prisons in Corona and Chowchilla, CA, were sterilized against their will. Between 2006 and 2010. That’s TWO THOUSAND six. Another hundred or more may have been sterilized in the 10 or so years before that. (See also this HuffPo piece from last month.)
In an earlier post, I noted that when I applied for my marriage license in California, my betrothed and I received a state-sponsored booklet called “Your future together.” It was heavily gene-centered and mentioned that one can obtain free birth control and sterilization, paid for by the state. The historian Alexandra Minna Stern has written about the racial politics of California sterilization (see my review of her latest book–and then buy the book). Not surprisingly, the largest number of people sterilized are poor Mexicans, often illegal immigrants. Those surgeries, however, are at least nominally voluntary. Involuntary sexual surgery on prisoners sounds like something from the 1910s, not the 2010s.
In my book, The Science of Human Perfection, I note that eugenics is alive and well, though it often travels under an assumed name. The principles of informed consent can be–and as this report shows, are–used to mask persuasion. When that persuasion includes being made to “feel like was a bad mother if I didn’t do it,” it grades into coercion. Further, the ethics of sterilizing minority women in prison are even more complex than doing it outside—one wonders, for example, how many of those women were impregnated by prison guards. We should not let the drawing of apparently bright ethical lines allow us to become complacent about the gray, unlit areas where that good ol’ time eugenics can still flourish.