Opinion: Forced sterilization still happens

July 14, 2013


As Christina Cordero remembers it, the doctor would not take no for an answer.

“As soon as he found out that I had five kids, he suggested that I look into getting it done. The closer I got to my due date, the more he talked about it. He made me feel like a bad mother if I didn’t do it.”

The “it” is tubal ligation. He wanted to sterilize her.

Cordero, who is now 34, was serving time for auto theft at a California prison. She finally said yes, a decision she regrets seven years later. “I wish I would have never had it done.”

We are indebted to the Center for Investigative Reporting, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated content provider, for the preceding account. It is contained in a troubling report, released last week, documenting that the California prison system sterilized as many as 250 women from 1997 to 2010, in violation of state rules. Women who had the procedure say they were pressured to do so.

The state reportedly paid $147,000 for this service. Dr. James Henrich, who operated on Cordero, says it’s a bargain. “Over a 10-year period,” he told CIR, “that isn’t a huge amount of money compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children — as they procreated more.”

Maybe you think that makes perfect sense. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine someone saying the same thing on Fox “News” next week. After all, character assassination of the less fortunate has become commonplace. A certain wealthy presidential candidate famously described them as the 47 percent of us who are irredeemable.

But maybe you know enough of history to hear the awful parallel embedded in Henrich’s calculation. You see, this is not the first time Americans have had the bright idea of breeding out undesirables. Indeed, laws mandating forced sterilization were all the rage in America in the early 20th century. Even the Nazis were impressed. They modeled their statutes on ours.

The idea was to keep the nation’s gene pool from being polluted — and its economy burdened — by the “feeble-minded,” the habitually criminal, and by families that produced generations of prostitution, promiscuity, alcoholism, poverty or disability. Some sought to do this through immigration restrictions designed to bar the racially inferior, others argued for killing mentally and physically defective children, and still others favored forced sterilization.

The Supreme Court sanctioned the latter in a 1927 ruling against Carrie Buck. She was a “feeble-minded” 17-year-old daughter of a “feeble-minded” mother and an unwed mother herself. The court never met her. It relied on the testimony of an “expert,” Dr. Harry Hamilton Laughlin, who himself never met her.

Buck was, in fact, a Virginia girl of normal intelligence who had been raped. But Laughlin, after reviewing test results, claimed that she was typical of the “shiftless, ignorant and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.” The court approved her sterilization 8-1.

“It is better for the world,” wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. ... Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” That ruling has never been overturned.

It is not such a prodigious leap from Holmes to Henrich, who says women who claim he pressured them to be sterilized just “want to stay on the state’s dole.” Or to Michelle Malkin who calls the poor “takers,” or Ann Coulter, who calls them “animals.” We have traveled far, only to wind up in this familiar place where the vulnerable and voiceless, the ones most deserving of our compassion, are regarded instead as inferiors and allowed to be victimized.

It is not happening again.

It is happening still.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He cats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


jafs 4 years, 9 months ago

This mixes too many different things to be convincing to me.

While I understand the concern about "forced sterilization", and especially the ways in which that can be abused, there's more going on here.

A woman in jail for auto theft already has five kids. It's very unlikely that she can support the ones she already has, and if charged with a felony, will find it very difficult to reintegrate into society, get a decent job, etc.

Who's really the victim in this scenario? I'd say it's the kids, not the woman. Although she may regret not being able to have more kids, the existing kids are probably better off if she stops now. And, clearly, the state will probably be very involved in raising her kids in a variety of ways (unfortunately).

This is a very different story than the one in which a normal woman who'd been raped was forced to be sterilized based on false information and bad diagnoses.

Leslie Swearingen 4 years, 9 months ago

I agree with you. This argument that it is the womans body so she can do whatever she wants with it is getting very old. A woman has a right to have a child every year who suffers from alcohol syndrome? There are women who are simply not capable of monitoring their own behavior. How do we eliminate abuse of sterilization while stopping women from abusing their unborn and born children?

JayhawkFan1985 4 years, 9 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

JayhawkFan1985 4 years, 9 months ago

To repeat my point but rephrase it in a more genteel way, I believe that some of the comments stated above displayed ignorance and lacked compassion for fellow humans.

tomatogrower 4 years, 9 months ago

Well, the rest of the story is that it mostly happened with Black Women. White inmates weren't pressured. But anyway. I would like everyone to stick with no more than 2 children, but I am also pro-choice.

jafs 4 years, 9 months ago

If true, then that's a problem in my opinion.

Were there white inmates in similar situations, with that many children? If not, perhaps it was a matter of how many kids they already had, rather than their race.

I'm also pro-choice, but I'm not sympathetic to people who choose to have lots of kids that they can't support - seems unfair to the kids, for one thing.

Earl Meyer 4 years, 9 months ago

Leny forgot to mention Marget Sanger.


Clint Church 4 years, 9 months ago

If Pitts wants to let people that cannot take of the kids they have, have more, than he can pay for them. People can have as many kids as they want as long as they are able to raise them without the governments help.

tomatogrower 4 years, 9 months ago

So you agreed with China's methods of cutting back the population. I mean there was a need for them to decrease their population. And you do believe in abortion, because sometimes there are accidents, and abortions are cheaper, then raising a child.

50YearResident 4 years, 9 months ago

How many stolen cars does it take per month to support 5 kids, and she wanted more? I would say this is not a good example to use for his cause. However it does provoke thoughts of the benefits of it.

50YearResident 4 years, 9 months ago

It has worked for the animal kingdom. Only the strongest breed there. How did they come to that system? Do you think it is good or bad? What is your opinion? Thought provoking, isn't it?

Leslie Swearingen 4 years, 9 months ago

Eugenics is a red herring, that is not at all what anyone is suggesting, and animals do take care of the weak in their group. Giraffes babysit the youngest while the others are grazing. I am afraid that nature red in claw and fang and the survival of the fittest came from scientists who were very conservative in religion and politics and that most of what they believed has been discounted.

tomatogrower 4 years, 9 months ago

In places where there are high infant mortality and starvation rates women have more babies. It's called survival. So you wouldn't object if this woman had an abortion, because the pill didn't work, or because in the moment of passion they forgot the protection? I thought you were anti-abortion.

Leslie Swearingen 4 years, 9 months ago

I thought that when a womans body fat dropped below a certain percentage they stopped menstruating and therefore could not become pregnant. People can control their passion. Overpopulation is the biggest and most immediate problem that the human species is facing and something has to be done and soon.

Liberty275 4 years, 9 months ago

Which other animals sterilize females that aren't smart enough to catch food?

HootyWho 4 years, 9 months ago

this women might not be the best example, but I think it should be her decision, not the doctor. I don't want anybody making that decision for me but me and why do we just assume that she is on government assistance. Maybe she isn't when she's not in jail, i'm guessing that she is, but we don't know that.

jafs 4 years, 9 months ago

And, she did make that decision - the doctor simply encouraged/urged her to do so.

How exactly do you think she is supporting five kids, when she's not stealing cars?

tomatogrower 4 years, 9 months ago

Again, a bunch of men trying to control women. Gotta love it.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 9 months ago

Then again, if some of the assumptions are true, like that she is unable to adequately care for her children, then the choices she is making, all seemingly negative, are being forced upon the children and society as a whole. Why is it any worse when men try to control women than when this woman tries to control the taxpayer?

kochmoney 4 years, 9 months ago

Nobody says she made good choices to land in jail pregnant with her fifth child, but I really doubt they're busy pressuring the male inmates that fathered five children into getting vasectomies.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 9 months ago

Once the pregnancy happened, she had a "choice" as to whether or not it should be brought to term. He had no choice.

That said, if you're advocating that then men should be pressured to have vasectomies when they have failed miserably as fathers, and that the pressure should be equal to that of the women who have been equal failures as mothers, I agree.

Perhaps the solution is that as people, men and women, force their poor choices upon society, they lose their right to make such choices, in equal proportions.

tomatogrower 4 years, 9 months ago

Umm. Have you been reading the news? She is a poor woman. She has no choices, If you don't have enough money for an abortion, too bad. And in many states abortion restrictions are so stringent, that it's just too difficult for anyone. If the guy doesn't want to be a father, he can keep his pants zipped. I'm really sick of hearing how men can't so no to sex. Get some self control. Otherwise, pay up if a baby is the result.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 9 months ago

Frankly, I think the man should keep his zipper zipped if he can't afford to be a father and I think she should keep her pants on as well if she can't afford to be a mother. I think he should be forced to pay half for any child he fathers and he should be compelled to provide half the custody. I think all things should be equal.

But there is a more important thing. That is that what I think is irrelevant right up until the time that they make it my business by compelling me to pay for whatever choices and or decisions they make. Once that happens, they've invited my opinions on a whole range of topics, from what contraception they use (if I'm being asked to pay for it), to what choices they each make (if I'm being asked to pay for it) to how they raise their children (if I'm being asked to pay for it). If it's privacy they want, all I can say is, me too.

kochmoney 4 years, 9 months ago

Once you go down the road of removing the liberty and autonomy of individuals over their own physical body, you've now entered the pathway of the totalitarian dictator. If your argument is that you shouldn't have to pay for the "consequences" of sexual activity, you're advocating for children to die for want of food or health care. No, you don't have the right to dictate every reproductive choice someone makes any more than I can tell you whether or not you personally are worthy of rescue in a fire, and as a taxpayer, I'm paying for both of those things.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 9 months ago

Interesting that you use the example of fire protection. In many rural areas, residents may choose to become members of a rural fire district by purchasing that right. Those that do not, will not be protected should a fire happen. I witnessed just such an event in Leavenworth Co. many years ago. I watched as a home was burned down.

But let me give you another example. We are currently involved in conflicts overseas. We have an all volunteer military. Why should I have a voice in any of those conflicts. The reason is because my taxes are paying for it and I have a right to decide how my taxes are spent.

We live in the most prosperous nation that has ever existed. Allowing children to die of starvation is not anywhere on the horizon. However, our wealth is not unlimited. There may come a day when something like health care might be rationed. I sincerely hope that day doesn't come. But it might. And should that day come, we all will have a right to voice our opinions about how that might come about.

The other day I was involved in a conversation with someone who suggested free contraception be provided for everyone. How would that work? Might we decide that we'll pay for depo prvera but not an IUD? Might we decide that we'll pay for condoms but only if put out to bid and awarded to the lowest bidder? We decide neutral colors and no ribbed? Or we'll pay for a sponge but not something else? At some time a budget will have to be drawn up and limits will have to be made so that we don't exceed that budget.

I say no. No to having Rep. Jenkins and our two clownish Senators writing such a budget. I say no to Brownback imposing a state budget. In fact, I say no to me telling anyone what a budget should be. I say no to any budget whatsoever, except whatever budget each and every individual chooses for themselves. As long as I don't pay, it's none of my business. But as soon as I do pay, it's my business.

kochmoney 4 years, 9 months ago

I see you've chosen to go with the Gish Gallop. I'll leave you to that. Enjoy life on your private island where you pay no taxes and get no services. I think you'll be very happy there.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 9 months ago

If you've been reading my posts for any time now, you'll know that I'm an advocate for paying higher taxes, for everyone. I have no problem with government providing services and I have no problem with government expanding upon what it currently does. As long as we're willing to pay for it. I strongly believe we should be paying more for things like schools, a lot more. This despite the fact I've gone the private school route with my child. And no, I don't want a voucher of any kind.

But when you do take my money, it comes with certain strings attached. Take my money (taxes) and yes, I have a voice in how it's spent, even on school issues. Even in the military industrial complex, even in the social safety net. Take my money and you've given me a voice. It's that simple.

kochmoney 4 years, 9 months ago

No. It's not that simple. People have inalienable rights in this country, and no matter how much you pay in taxes or receive in taxpayer-funded benefits, those rights don't go away. Your rights as a citizen (not as a taxpayer) do give you a theoretical voice in how tax money is spent, but you do not have the right to legislate barbaric acts against other citizens just because you have more money than they do.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 9 months ago

People have inalienable rights, but that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about tax expenditures. Let me give another example. We all have freedom of religion. However, are we compelled to build a road to your church so that you may exercise your freedom? No. We may, if we choose. But we are under no obligation to do so. And if we do choose to build that road, it will be done in such a way as we the taxpayers choose. It might be two lanes or four. it will be repaired when we the taxpayers decide. There may come a time when we decide that we won't build the road to the church, but rather build some other road somewhere else. We should not be hostile, as in we'll build a road to a Christian church but not a Muslim mosque. But none of that interferes with your freedom of religion.

The same is true with the discussion we've been having. I'm not interested in limiting anyone's inalienable rights. But I'm not interested in a system where government will tax me and then say that I have no voice in how those tax dollars will be spent. Kochmoney - Build your church and worship as you see fit. The road, though, that you want built with taxpayer money, that's a topic open to discussion by all.

jafs 4 years, 9 months ago

It's open to all for discussion, of course.

The difficulty is that we all may have differing views on the subject, and making a decision that adequately represents those views may be impossible.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 9 months ago

Jafs - You say it's open to discussion to all, of course. Kochmoney seems to be saying it's not open to discussion at all. That's the point of our disagreement.

kochmoney 4 years, 9 months ago

We're not talking about a choice of where to locate a road. We're talking about violating an individual's right to privacy. You don't have the right to compel them with starvation via denial of benefits, either.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 9 months ago

No one is starving in this country. Unless they are doing so voluntarily. No one. Not one. Zero. Zip. Nada. Zilch. Ain't happenin'. None.

Loss of privacy does not lead to starvation any more than the facilitation of privacy leads to obesity. You can have freedom of speech, but that doesn't mean the government must provide you with a computer and internet access. Nor must they purchase you a bull horn. You maintain your freedom even with the government doing nothing to facilitate it. You are free to enjoy your privacy even without the government giving you my tax dollars to facilitate that privacy. Enjoy it.

kochmoney 4 years, 9 months ago

Why must you insist on something so easily refuted? More than zero children die of malnutrition in the USA, and one can presume that children are not intentionally starving themselves, so therefore the notion that the rate is zero is false. End stop.

Please get back to me when you learn that statistics consist of more than what happens in your own back yard.

kochmoney 4 years, 9 months ago

I'm suggesting that Judgy McJudgersons deciding who is and isn't suitable to reproduce is a terrible idea. You can provide birth control and sterilization for those who ask for it, but eugenics is just plain wrong.

There's no rational and objective criteria. None. This woman was a petty thief. What about a rich, white collar criminal that swindled little old ladies out of their retirement income and will cause much more taxpayer expense? What about someone who is disabled? What about single parents? Historically when eugenics has been tried, it has ultimately devolved into targeting races, creeds, and income levels. From the tone of your post, it really sounds like you'd get to that point faster.

Leslie Swearingen 4 years, 9 months ago

No, this is not men vs women and control. This is about people refusing to see that sterilization is not a bad thing. I would think it would make a woman feel freer if anything. The thing is I don't believe that there are that many people who see their children in terms of dollars and cents. Perhaps it would be better if we all did.

I had one child and then opted for sterilization as I am a woman who knows her limitations and I wanted to be absolutely sure beyond a doubt I could never become pregnant again. To me it was the sensible thing to do and i have no regrets.

Read Inferno by Dan Brown. it has some very interesting things to say on this subject and I know you will love the ending.

mk9992 4 years, 9 months ago

So no examples of forced sterilization still happening?

Liberty275 4 years, 9 months ago

Eugenics is a progressive idea. As usual, the progressives thought they were "helping" mankind, but all they really did is show the world how much their philosophy strives to undermine the individual to benefit the group.

That any level of government is asking Americans to mutilate their reproductive organs for the better good is disgusting and anyone that defends the practice because of money or disdain for the feeble minded or any reason should be ashamed.

jafs 4 years, 9 months ago

I'm not sure that's true.

Folks complaining about the "pollution of the gene pool" were hardly progressive, but rather conservative.

How many kids should the state be willing to support if/when people have a lot of kids they can't support? And, if the state is going to do that, they have a reasonable interest in trying to limit that number.

Not saying we should force anybody to have operations, of course. But, I have more sympathy for the kids in this story than for the mom, who has five and is in jail, and unlikely to be able to support the kids she already has.

Liberty275 4 years, 9 months ago

"But these same eugenicists were often political and social liberals — advocates of social reform, partisans of science, critics of stasis and reaction. “They weren’t sinister characters out of some darkly lighted noir film about Nazi sympathizers,” Conniff writes of Fisher and his peers, “but environmentalists, peace activists, fitness buffs, healthy-living enthusiasts, inventors and family men.” From Teddy Roosevelt to the Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, fears about “race suicide” and “human weeds” were common among self-conscious progressives, who saw the quest for a better gene pool as of a piece with their broader dream of human advancement."


"How many kids should the state be willing to support"

As many as it needs to.

"they have a reasonable interest in trying to limit that number."

"nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law"

If the state wants to steal a woman's uterus for the common good, they are going to need a warrant.

"But, I have more sympathy for the kids in this story"

You are so concerned about the children, you justify violating the mother's body to prevent their existence.

Tell me Jafs, what's the difference between coercing a woman to become sterile and coercing her to carry a child to term? Do you think those things are different?

jafs 4 years, 9 months ago

The folks that I knew who spoke of "gene pool" pollution weren't progressive, by any means.

Really? Will you support higher taxes and more social programs for that purpose? You might lose your libertarian secret decoder ring :-)

Depriving somebody of their life means killing them, liberty means locking them up, and property is self evident. Nothing in that trio confers an absolute right to have as many children as you want. Perhaps pursuit of happiness might apply, but only if thought of broadly.

What kind of life do you think her five existing children will have? And, do you think that will be made better or worse if she has another five? Having children isn't some sort of right that comes without responsibility, and bad parents, or parents who can't care for their children, are harming them.

I'm more concerned about that than I am with the "right to have as many children as I feel like, regardless of whether or not I will take care of them".

They are similar, but also different. Pregnancy and birth involve health risks to the mother, and also create a life that she is then responsible for (or the rest of us are, if she doesn't do a good job). Preventing more children that won't be cared for well is rather different. I don't like coercion much, but I can understand why somebody who sees this situation would think it's a good idea for this woman to stop having kids.

If people made good decisions, and acted responsibly and considerately, we could do away with a lot of laws and state involvement - that would be my preferred solution, but I can see that it's unlikely to happen, at least in my lifetime.

In your quest for unfettered freedom, you sometimes seem to overlook responsibility and the effects of people's actions on each other, I think.

Liberty275 4 years, 9 months ago

"The folks that I knew who spoke of "gene pool" pollution weren't progressive, by any means."

It is progressive ideology. Sometimes it's like they worship fringe pseudo-science like a god.

"Really? Will you support higher taxes"

I won't support them, but I'll pay them.

" and property is self evident"

Do you own your body?

"What kind of life do you think her five existing children will have?"

Not my business.

"I can understand why somebody who sees this situation would think it's a good idea for this woman to stop having kids."

What happened to you? When did you start thinking the number of kids anybody except you and you partner has is any of your business?

"you sometimes seem to overlook responsibility and the effects of people's actions on each other, I think."

It's plain enough. If you are found guilty of violating another's rights, you will be punished. Under libertaeianism, responsibility is a core tenet. It isn't grafted on to fit the breeze like it is under the two dominate political philosophies.

jafs 4 years, 9 months ago

When people have kids they can't take care of, it becomes my business.

Having children you can't take care of violates their rights, in my opinion.

Liberty275 4 years, 9 months ago

"When people have kids they can't take care of, it becomes my business."

No it doesn't. You either pay your taxes or not.

jafs 4 years, 9 months ago

Yes it does.

When one person wants to harm themselves, it's not my business. When they harm others, it becomes my business.

Caroline Bennett 4 years, 9 months ago

They both cost the state money, and harm is still being done. It should not matter.

jafs 4 years, 9 months ago

Focusing on punishment is very unsatisfying for me.

Once somebody's hurt somebody else, the damage has already happened. If we wait for parents to neglect/abuse their kids, and then take the kids away and put them in foster care, the kids have already been harmed. And, unfortunately, our systems aren't very good at helping those kids recover and lead good, productive lives.

Punishing the parents doesn't help the kids.

I'm very interested in preventing harm to children, because they are true victims, and lack power. Also, that harm is deep and long-lasting for many of them. If urging this woman to stop having kids means that she doesn't have more kids that she can't take care of and harm, then I would urge her to do that.

Her abstract "right" to have as many kids as she wants doesn't outweigh the harm done to the children, in my view.

Liberty275 4 years, 9 months ago

So your idea is punishing people BEFORE they commit a crime. Wonderful.

"Her abstract "right" to have as many kids as she wants doesn't outweigh the harm done to the children, in my view."

They are unrelated unless you are married to her.

jafs 4 years, 9 months ago

Well, you'll note that I said I would urge her to stop, not force her to stop.

And, I don't feel that she is punished by only having five kids she can't take care of, but the kids are certainly harmed by it, and if she has more, then they would be as well.

I am assuming, based on the facts of the story as reported, that she isn't taking good care of the kids she has now - she has five, and she's in jail for auto theft. I'm pretty sure that assumption is accurate, and that when she's not stealing cars, she's not holding down a good job, etc.

We could eliminate speed limits, and just punish people after they kill kids driving 60mph through a residential neighborhood, but that seems like a bad idea to me. Prevention is always better than whatever we do after the fact. And, the position that we should all have the right to drive as fast as we want is unconvincing to me.

tomatogrower 4 years, 9 months ago

And progressives learned they were wrong and have changed. Why are you conservatives trying to revive it? Why don't we all agree that medical decisions are the patient's choice only. Years ago, after a pregnancy scare while married to my abusive ex husband, I enquired about getting my tubes tied, so I could remain financially independent and save my daughter and me. I was told I was too young, and two doctors wouldn't do it. Several years later, I was finally able to find a doctor who did what I wanted, and could breathe easier. This was my choice. I won't force a woman who wants 10 kids to not have that many, if you leave me alone to not have any more children, except the one I adopted. Of course, I am speaking for all the women who can still have children, since I am too old. What we decide is our decision, not yours.

Liberty275 4 years, 9 months ago

"Why are you conservatives trying to revive it?"

Why are you asking me, I'm not conservative. However, oddly enough, I do support a very efficient means of eugenics, unfettered abortions. You don't have to sterilize people that were never allowed to be born.

"I am speaking for all the women who can still have children, since I am too old. What we decide is our decision, not yours."

Don't give yourselves too much credit for the decision. You still need a mans input (LOL, a pun) unless you want to start cloning yourselves.

geekin_topekan 4 years, 9 months ago

Google George H.W. Bush's Family Planning Act.

Leslie Swearingen 4 years, 9 months ago

This has nothing to do with eugenics. Humans are mutts and will forever remain so. We must stop throwing out red herrings to distract from the reality that over population is here and must be dealt with now.

Several years ago I heard a white woman tell a young native girl that she thought it was wonderful to have a big family. No, it isn't, the young girl answered, every new baby needs a chair, clothes, and she proceeded to name a few things. She was around seven and at her age she understood because her understanding came out of experience.

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