The Corner

California’s Sterilization of Female Prisoners

Conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, already play a leading role in efforts to reform America’s prisons. Some stomach-churning revelations out of California should give many of these same conservatives a strong reason to work even harder at the cause.

The situation in California is pretty simple: Between 2006 and 2010, the Center for Investigative Reporting reveals, nearly 150 female California prison inmates were sterilized without their fully informed consent. CIR quotes former inmates and others who allege that staff coerced inmates into undergoing sterilization and bypassed normal approval procedures. Staff also allegedly targeted women considered to be particularly bad risks for reoffending.

It goes without saying that there’s no reason to give any credence to prison officials’ claims that they were trying to “empower” female inmates. People are put in prison to disempower them. The idea that anyone being punished through imprisonment should get a taxpayer-funded elective surgery costing over $100,000 is absurd.  

So what to do? Pro-lifers probably should get mileage out of the observation that forced sterilization of the “feeble minded” harkens back to the eugenics movement of the early 20th century that Planned Parenthood Founder Margret Sanger helped to forward. It’s also perfectly legitimate to tie the casual acceptance of a clearly barbaric practice to a “culture of death” that also does so much to promote abortion.

But these points, while legitimate, miss a deeper lesson that all conservatives should take to heart: prison officials’ efforts to justify forced sterilization reflect an attitude that people in prison are sub-human. The major reason to force people to give up their reproductive potential (among the most natural of all rights), as California did, is a determination by the state that their crimes deprive them of even the most basic of rights. It’s the same thinking that results in the casual acceptance of rape behind bars and dozens of other horrible things. And this casual type of dehumanization, in turn, undermines the most fundamental teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Almost everyone in prison has done something horrible, and it is perfectly just to take away some of their rights. But efforts to focus on making prisons as harsh as possible have had real and important costs. And the recent revelations from California offer just another reason that society ought to think long and hard about reforming is correctional facilities. 

— Eli Lehrer is president and co-founder of R Street.

Eli Lehrer is president and co-founder of the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank. He lives in Herndon, Va., with his wife, Kari, and son, Andrew.

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