The following comes from a Dec. 6 story in the Tidings, the L.A. archdiocese newspaper.
Last July a hard-digging reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) broke a disturbing story reviving an oft-forgotten, or hidden, dark stain on California’s history.
From the early 20th century into the 1970s, prison inmates and mental patients were regularly sterilized — by orders from a doctor or medical director where the person was institutionalized — to rid the Golden State of the “feebleminded” and “defective,” the disabled as well as minorities, immigrants and even, at times, the poor. More than 20,000 men and women, in fact, underwent these highly invasive and life-changing medical procedures, many against their knowledge or will.
Devout advocates of forced sterilization included President Theodore Roosevelt, Alexander Graham Bell and Oliver Wendell Homes, who — in a U.S. Supreme Court decision approving it — declared, “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.”
But then Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime co-opted America’s born-and-bred eugenics to purify the Aryan Nordic race with horrific consequences for more than 6 million Jews, Gypsies and Catholics, along with the mentally and physically challenged. And the whole movement quickly fell into disfavor.
California, however, was slow in doing away completely with its decades-long love affair with involuntary birth control. But gradually safeguards, even here, were put into place. Still, state lawmakers didn’t legally ban forced infertility until 1979.
Inmates in prison, particularly women, were a whole different matter, however. It wasn’t until 1994 that medical officials in Sacramento had to approve case-by-case any sterilization — including tubal ligations — taking place. This was to make sure that incarcerated females weren’t pressured or coerced in having the procedure.
Case closed? Not exactly.
Consider Crystal Nguyen’s experience, which Corey Johnson recounted in his first story published by CIR last July and highlighted in Sterilization Behind Bars, a documentary produced by The Young Turks and the Center for Investigative Reporting (released early last month).
In 2006, the 19-year-old Nguyen started serving time in Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, which is currently a men’s prison, for an armed robbery she and her boyfriend had committed. Pregnant, she wound up under the care of prison doctor James Heinrich, an obstetrics and gynecology specialist who had what she calls a “weird” bedside manner. He would laugh at her questions about being pregnant, making her feel uncomfortable, even stupid at times. And then there was his disconcerting habit of munching on popcorn or crackers during medical examinations.
According to standard prison rules, her baby boy was taken away within days, making the young mother feel more alone than ever and sending her into deep waves of postpartum depression.
To make matters worse, Nguyen was assigned to a job in the prison’s infirmary during 2007, under the supervision of the same Dr. Heinrich. She often heard him and medical staffers talking to other women inmates, especially those who had served multiple sentences, about being sterilized because they didn’t have any means of support.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God! That’s not right,’” she told Johnson. “Do they think they’re animals, and they don’t want them to breed anymore?”
In the new documentary, the now ex-convict pointed out it basically boiled down to inmates having no rights in prison, even about their personal reproductive lives. “And they make you feel like you don’t deserve to have kids. You committed a crime. You’re doing your time,” Nguyen explained. “And they’re thinking they’re doing society a favor by not letting you reproduce….”
To read the entire story (part II of a series), click here.
To view Part I, click here.
Part III of this series will appear Dec. 13.