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Our Long, Troubling History of Sterilizing the Incarcerated

Tennessee judge is offering reduced jail time to men and women who appear before him in court. And all they have to do to earn that break is “volunteer” to be put on a contraceptive or sterilized.

In May, Judge Sam Benningfield signed an order to allow individuals held in the White County jail to receive 30 days off their time if they undergo a birth control procedure. County officials say that 32 women have received birth control implants so far and 38 men are waiting to have vasectomies performed.

Under no circumstances should the courts use their power to shape the reproductive decisions of individuals. But sadly, for over a century, attitudes about individuals convicted of crimes have made incarcerated men and women targets of such efforts.

Whether Benningfield knows it or not, his policy follows a long history of eugenic practices in this country. Eugenics is a pseudo-science which holds that the quality of humanity can be improved over generations through practices that encourage individuals with “desirable traits” to reproduce and discourage the “unfit” from doing so. There's a sense that eugenics is confined to a long-ago history, but coercive eugenic practices crop up constantly in the American criminal legal system.

In 1907, Indiana became the first state to pass a law allowing for the compulsory sterilization of “confirmed criminals,” “idiots,” “imbeciles” and “rapists.” As a result, hundreds of men held in Indiana prisons were given vasectomies. Henry Sharp, the doctor who performed the procedures, argued before the National Prison Association in defenseof the practice: “We owe it not only to ourselves, but to the future of our race and nation, to see that the defective and diseased do not multiply.” ...

Read entire article at The Marshall Project