Coerced Sterilization – Asserting Power over Female Bodies

Mangala Kanayson, LSRJ Summer Intern (’15, Emory University School of Law)

Forced sterilization has a sordid history in California. Before a state ban was enacted in 1979, single characteristics (such as poverty, mental illness, or being in prison) meant people were systematically deemed unfit to procreate and punished for existing by having their choice to exercise autonomy over their health and bodies removed.

The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) recently released a report on the illegal sterilization of incarcerated women that lifted the curtain and exposed to us the dark reality; that despite moralizing about equality, people still do not perceive incarcerated women as deserving to mother children and that even those charged with protecting the health and well-being of women can forcibly assert authority over female bodies and feel that they have done nothing wrong.

CIR’s recent report on the illegal sterilization of female prisoners is too heavy of a weight to dismiss as the poor judgment of a few or as the unfortunate quest of a misguided doctor.

Pressuring a woman into being sterilized during childbirth is more than an assertion of power over her body. It is a value judgment that strips away her right to be and her right to choose when and how to parent her children. In the context of our sexist, classist, racist society, it is also an action steeped in a history of oppression and injustice.

Kahlil Gibran in his 1923 poem The Prophet, wrote that “the wrong-doer cannot do wrong without the hidden will of you all.”  Perhaps he was right. Could doctors have so violated the rights, dignity, and personhood of these women outside the context of a sexist culture that regulates/legislates women’s bodies and reproductive autonomy as a matter of course? Would officials have allowed and participated in the coercion of women so obviously under duress outside of a culture that objectifies women and relegates them to caricatures instead of people?

The online rhetoric surrounding CIR’s controversial report is overwhelmingly in favor of forced sterilization. This suggests that vulnerable populations, particularly female prisoners, are not yet deemed “fit to live among us.” This report must convince us that women’s rights are still overwhelmingly unattained, and must force us to vehemently and unfailingly rebuke the idea that anyone can be viewed or treated as less than human.