California Legislature Approves Ban on Forced Sterilizations for Inmates

By Robin Simmonds

Forced or coerced sterilizations in California prisons would be prohibited under legislation that is now on the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown.

The measure, SB1135, received a unanimous vote in the state Senate on Tuesday.

State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) introduced the measure in response to a 2013 report by The Center for Investigative Reporting, which found at least 148 cases of female inmates who had received tubal ligations in violation of prison rules. The procedures occurred during a four-year period, starting in 2006.

“[The bill] will turn around any kind of old culture that thinks that this kind of behavior and procedure within our institutions is acceptable,” said Jackson. “It is not.”

CIR reported that inmates were often not given information about the lasting effect of the procedure and the risks associated. In many cases, the women were reportedly pressured after prison medical staff found that they had already several children or where facing multiple prison terms. A Bay Area physician, who performed some of the surgeries, told CIR that he believed the sterilization procedures spent less money than welfare would for unwanted children.

As a result of the report and after the outrage of the legislative Woman’s Caucus, of which Jackson is vice chair, the state auditor conducted an audit on the issue. The conclusions of CIR were validated by the 2014 state auditor’s report.

The audit also found that women receiving tubal ligations were typically between 25 and 40 years old and had been pregnant five or more times before. Most of them also tested at less than a high school level in reading proficiency. Jackson said that pressuring a vulnerable population into permanent reproductive choices violates their most basic human rights.

The legislation includes two exceptions to its prohibition on inmate sterilization. The procedure can be conducted only if the inmate’s life is in danger or to treat a medical condition when no less drastic measure is feasible.

SB1135 includes provisions for counseling about the permanency of the procedure, as well as a requirement for the presence of an independent physician to consult with the patient. If any sterilizations are performed in an institution, prisons would also need to submit an annual report to the Board of State and Community Corrections.

“For most women, it is one of the most important decisions of their lives, whether or not to have children,” Jackson said. “And to end that ability while in prison is inherently coercive.”

Brown has not indicated whether he will sign or veto the bill. Jackson’s bill is one of hundreds of pieces of legislation that Brown must act on after the Legislature adjourns at the end of August.

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