Prison is not the right place for women to make such a life-changing decision as whether to be sterilized. Because legal loopholes have allowed too many female inmates to be pressured into the surgery, the Legislature needs to step in.
It should seriously consider a proposal that is the product of talks among key lawmakers, prisoner-rights advocates and state officials. The federal health receiver’s office, which oversees medical care in state prisons, supports the bill introduced Thursday that would ban the sterilization of state prisoners and county jail inmates except in life-threatening emergencies, or for health reasons with strict safeguards.
The health receiver halted sterilizations for birth control in 2010 once it found out that the practice had become too prevalent since the late 1990s. Between 2006 and 2010, more than 130 tubal ligations were performed without the required approval by top state medical officials. In a blockbuster report last July, prisoner advocates and several former inmates told the Center for Investigative Reporting that women had been coerced into signing consent forms.
Under Senate Bill 1135, introduced by Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Santa Barbara Democrat, sterilization for the purposes of birth control would be prohibited.
Sterilization would be allowed when the woman’s life is at risk, or to treat other medical conditions, but only if less drastic measures fail or are refused by the woman and only if consent is given after the inmate is told of the procedure’s “full and permanent impact.”
In addition, a second physician who is not employed by the state or county must confirm the medical need for the sterilization.
It’s clear that safeguards are necessary given the troubling and extensive record of one former prison doctor, James Heinrich. After the state hired him in December 2005 to head obstetrics and gynecology at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, he was responsible for many of the tubal ligations and also arranged nearly 380 other types of sterilizations, the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed earlier this month. The numbers were far higher than those at the California Institution for Women in Corona, where pregnant inmates were also housed.
Heinrich’s permanent job at Valley State ended in late 2010, but he worked on contract through December 2012. Before he left, he told CIR that the state money spent sterilizing inmates was minimal “compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children.”
That is a scary statement. There is too much history in California of forced sterilizations to stop “undesirables” – criminals, the mentally ill and poor – from having children.
The Legislature must take a strong stand so that it will never happen again.