California Legislature Votes to Ban Sterilization of Inmates


Legislation banning the sterilization of inmates in California state prisons is awaiting the governor’s signature after gaining overwhelming support from both the state assembly and senate this week.

The bill, SB 1135was introduced early this year after the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) found that women in California prisons were being sterilized under potentially illegal circumstances. Between 2006 and 2010, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation gave tubal ligations to almost 150 women without required state approval, according to the CIR investigation.

California has a long history of forced sterilization, an issue covered by SisterSong Co-Founder Loretta Ross for RH Reality Check earlier this year. During the 20th century, tens of thousands of forced sterilizations occurred and were backed mostly by a 1909 law that sanctioned the sterilization of people deemed unfit to have children—by and large they were mentally ill, poor, and incarcerated.

Forced sterilization was banned 70 years later, when new guidelines for sterilization were put in place, including a 72-hour waiting period and informed consent requirements. And in 1994, the state passed a law requiring that a committee of medical professionals review and approve each sterilization request on a case-by-case basis.

Yet the CIR investigation a year ago found that no such requests were made to the committee. Incarcerated women also told CIR that they were repeatedly pressured by prison doctors to get tubal ligations, including when they were about to give birth.

The bill passed by the California legislature this week tightens the restrictions on the sterilization of inmates by banning the practice, with few exceptions. Sterilization procedures like tubal ligations would only be allowed if the person’s life is in danger or if the procedure is deemed “medically necessary” to treat a diagnosed condition. The bill also requires that jails and prisons publish data on instances of sterilization, broken down race, age, and medical justification, on their websites.

The text of the bill also acknowledges that the sterilization of inmates is a reproductive justice issue. “It is the intent of the Legislature … to ensure safeguards against sterilization abuse within the coercive environment of prison and jail, and to positively affirm that all people should have the right to full self-determine their reproductive lives free from coercion, violence, or threat of force,” the bill reads.

Both the senate and assembly unanimously voted in favor of its passage. California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has up to 12 days to sign the legislation, before it takes effect by default.

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  • Rachel Roth

    Readers might like to know that a California organization called Justice Now has been working on this issue since 2006. Their work informed the stories by the Center for Investigative Reporting that finally brought widespread attention, and also informed the bill now on the governor’s desk. You can read Justice Now’s testimony and also watch video testimonials at their website, http://www.jnow.org, or get updates on their Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/pages/Justice-Now/49918541836

    Also, the waiting period is 30 days (72 hours in certain emergency situations). Thanks for covering this important issue of reproductive justice for imprisoned women.