It's taken me a few minutes to get my head wrapped around this one... I was under the mistaken impression that we didn't do this sort of thing in civilized countries anymore. But then, who says the Tennessee criminal justice system is civilized?
A report out of Nashville confirms that prosecutors in the district attorney's office have coerced defendants to undergo sterilization procedures in order to lessen the severity of their sentences. The most recent case involves a 36 year-old woman with a long history of mental illness who fled a homeless shelter in Arkansas with her newborn child to come to Nashville. She awoke in a Nashville motel five days later and found the baby unresponsive in the bed beside her, then waited two hours to take the child by taxi to a local hospital where the infant was declared dead. Details from the article follow:
There was no sign of injury, and the cause of death was undetermined.
Police later learned that in 2004, Randers stabbed herself in the stomach while pregnant, though the fetus was not harmed. She told investigators that it happened when she fell down the stairs while cutting fruit.
The assistant district attorney who worked the case, Brian Holmgren, is a child prosecutor who speaks around the country, was once a senior attorney with the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse and serves on the international advisory board of the National Center for Shaken Baby Syndrome. He has been both praised and fiercely criticized for his aggressive courtroom tactics on behalf of children.
Harcombe said he previously asked that another client agree to be sterilized in order to get a plea deal. She refused and it didn’t become part of the plea deal reached in that case.
Holmgren did not respond to several messages seeking comment.
Nashville defense attorney Carrie Searcy said Holmgren asked that two of her clients who gave birth to children who tested positive for drugs undergo sterilization. Neither did, Searcy said, because both women had already undergone the procedure.
Assistant public defender Joan Lawson, who also supervises other attorneys, said she also had been involved in cases in which a prosecutor had put sterilization on the table. Lawson said it was typically not an explicit demand, was not an everyday occurrence and was made off the record. Lawson said she refused the idea and resolved her cases without sterilization.
“It’s always been more of ‘If your client is willing to do this, then I might be inclined to talk about probation,'” Lawson said.
This time, when Holmgren insisted Randers ungero sterilization to avoid prison, Harcombe complained to his boss. The district attorney took over the case, and Randers was not sterilized. The prosecutor agreed Randers was mentally ill, and she was institutionalized after being found not guilty by reason of insanity.
“Any time a woman is given a choice between prison and this surgery, that is inherently coercive, even in cases where there is no mental illness,” Harcombe said.
In all fairness, "forced" is not exactly the same as "coerced", though the difference might be a matter of semantics to a defendant eager to avoid serious jail time.
You might think (as I did) that forced sterilization doesn't happen in America these days, but you'd be wrong. According to that same report, in 2009, a 21 year-old unmarried mother of three in West Virginia agreed to have her tubes tied as part of her probation after being charged with the distribution of marijuana ! A Virginia man had a vasectomy in exchange for prison time in a child endangerment case there.
We've apparently not come very far since the first eugenics law was passed in Indiana in 1907, when the sterilization of the "socially inadequate" became popular across the country. In those days it was not uncommon for certain genetic traits to be deemed "defective" (including"feebleminded, insane, criminalistic, epileptic, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf; deformed; and dependent" – including "orphans, ne'er-do-wells, tramps, the homeless and paupers."
So if you're coming to Music City, remember to behave yourself... unless you're looking for a free vasectomy or tubal ligation, in which case, all you have to do is raise enough hell to look like you might be capable of passing along your particular defective gene thread to the next generation of tourists.