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


Leslie Swearingen 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.


Ray Parker 9 months, 1 week ago

This is classic Margaret Sanger Planned Parenthood eugenics, cutting down the expense to society caused by reproduction in the lower classes, criminals, and unwanted minority races. Eugenics always degenerates at first into forced sterilizations and forced abortions, then further if not impeded into forced euthanasia of the old, the weak, the incurable, the mentally disabled, unwanted children, Gypsies, Jews, queers. . . . There were lots of baby shoes confiscated from the condemned Jew children in the Nazi process of racial hygienics.

Slippery Slope

Slippery Slope by parkay


geekin_topekan 9 months, 1 week ago

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


Liberty275 9 months, 1 week 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.


mk9992 9 months, 1 week ago

So no examples of forced sterilization still happening?


tomatogrower 9 months, 1 week ago

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


fmrl 9 months, 1 week ago

Being persuaded to have a tubal ligation is not the same thing as forced sterilization by a long shot.


HootyWho 9 months, 1 week 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.


50YearResident 9 months, 1 week 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.


Clint Church 9 months, 1 week 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.


Pheps 9 months, 1 week ago

Is Pitts arguing for more feeble minded people?


icerl 9 months, 1 week ago

Leny forgot to mention Marget Sanger.



jafs 9 months, 1 week 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.


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