NEWSFLASH: California Bans Forced Sterilization of Women Prisoners

Months after appalling reports revealed that women prisoners in California had been sterilized without their consent, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a bill into law Thursday that would stop such a violation from happening in California prisons ever again. The new law prohibits sterilization as a method of birth control in correctional facilities, unless the patient’s life is in danger or she consents.

SB1135 passed unanimously in the California Senate and Assembly after a July 2013 report from the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), a watchdog nonprofit, and an exhaustive state audit proved that the California Department of Corrections had been coercively sterilizing women prisoners as recently as 2010. CIR found that nearly 150 women inmates were sterilized from 2006 to 2010 and that prison medical staff intimidated some women into getting the procedure if they had served multiple prison terms and seemed likely to return to prison again. A subsequent state audit spurred by the CIR report discovered several tubal ligations that were done without consent of the inmates. 

There was even evidence of women being asked to sign consent forms while heavily sedated, and women being denied a second opinion by a non-prison doctor.

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D) said after the bill was passed:

When I first heard this was happening in California prisons, I was absolutely shocked…No one should have their choice to become a mother taken away from them without their informed consent. This bill helps puts this terrible chapter of California’s history behind us once and for all.

The new law goes into effect on January 1.

And though the spotlight is on California this time, this could easily be a countrywide problem: Even though a 1976 Supreme Court ruling makes it illegal to use federal or state funds to sterilize women inmates for birth control purposes, the reproductive injustice happening in California prisons was only exposed thanks to the investigative work of advocacy groups. That means there could be other correctional facilities sterilizing women prisoners while remaining under the radar. With more national attention being paid to forced sterilizations, it wouldn’t be surprising if more reports of prison abuse started to emerge from other states.

Photo courtesy of Jailbird 2 via Creative Commons 2.0. 



Associate editor of Ms. magazine