Tennessee County Coercive Sterilization Program Recalls Racial Eugenics Policies of the PastJuly 24, 2017

In a return to coercive sterilization policies from the early 20th century, a judge in White County, Tennessee, is providing inmates 30 days credit toward jail time if they undergo a sterilization or contraception procedure.

General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield signed a standing order on May 15, 2017, providing that men who undergo a vasectomy, and women who have a long-term contraceptive implanted in their arms, will get 30 days off their jail sentence. Both procedures are to be performed by the Tennessee Department of Health. State health officials have reported an increase in crimes involving opioid pain pills and heroin in recent years, especially in rural communities like White County.

First elected in 1988, the judge said he decided to implement the program to help people with convictions "start thinking about taking responsibility for themselves." In an interview with WTVF, he explained, "I hope to encourage them at some point finally to take, you know, personal responsibility and to give them a chance, if/when they do get out, not to be burdened again with additional children."

County officials reported that 32 women have gotten the implant and 38 men are waiting to have the vasectomy procedure performed.

"Offering a so-called 'choice' between jail time and coerced contraception or sterilization is unconstitutional," Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-Tennessee's executive director, said in a statement. "Such a choice violates the fundamental constitutional right to reproductive autonomy and bodily integrity by interfering with the intimate decision of whether and when to have a child, imposing an intrusive medical procedure on individuals who are not in a position to reject it."

Sterilization programs in the United States date back to the 1920s, when many states authorized forced sterilization of thousands of "undesirable citizens" – people with disabilities, prisoners, and racial minorities – on the theory that, as the Supreme Court put it in upholding Virginia’s forced sterilization law in 1927, "three generations of imbeciles are enough." American proponents of Eugenics, a scientific movement to "improve" the genetic composition of the human population, soon accelerated sterilization programs, which served as a model for Nazi programs implemented during the Holocaust.

American sterilization laws were also used as a tool of racialized population control. From the 1920s to 1970s, thousands of poor, Southern black women were sterilized without their knowledge or consent. Most states abandoned eugenics programs after World War II, but sterilization increased in Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, coinciding with growing black political power, mandatory integration, and the civil rights movement. Some states continued to sterilize into the 1970s.