Last Thursday, Tennessee judge Sam Benningfield was suddenly inundated with accusations of being a eugenicist. Since May, he’s been offering misdemeanor defendants — most of whom, in opioid-plagued White County, are drug users — a 30-day sentence reduction if they get a vasectomy or birth control implant. No one said much about his offer until he told a local news reporter last week that he’d come up with the idea after seeing recovering addicts struggle to rebuild their lives. “I hope to encourage them to take personal responsibility and give them a chance, when they do get out, to not to be burdened with children,” he said.
National news outlets, though, saw it differently: Here was a man with power telling people who had none that they were unfit to reproduce. Pressured into releasing a statement the following day, Benningfield, who declined multiple requests from The Outline for comment, addressed his critics, saying that his idea was “in no way a eugenic program. Sterilization is never involved, as all procedures offered are reversible.” Permanent or not, Benningfield’s scheme evokes a long, shameful American tradition of sterilizing incarcerated people, often without their knowledge, that has lasted well into our current decade.
In the late 1800s, paranoia among American elites about increasing immigration, urbanization, and industrialization produced a thriving field of eugenic theory based on specious interpretations of emerging research about biological heredity. Believing that behavioral traits passed directly between generations, eugenics proponents like the biologist Charles B. Davenport and birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger began developing and implementing policies to prevent the societal degradation they were convinced was underway. Between 1907 and 1937, 32 states passed eugenics laws aimed at preventing reproduction by people social scientists deemed threats to a successful society. This included anyone “feebleminded” (often determined as a person with an I.Q. below 70), poor, “immoral,” or otherwise “unfit.”
Here was a man with power telling people who had none that they were unfit to reproduce.
Based on bunk social science that asserted criminality and degeneracy was genetic, superintendents in hospitals, prisons, mental institutions, and poorhouses were empowered to operate on anyone under their supervision, without that person’s knowledge or consent. “These laws were used to sterilize poor people, people with disabilities, people who were marginalized,” Alexandra Minna Stern, a historian at The University of Michigan, told The Outline. The effect, which Stern documents in her book Eugenic Nation, was the forced sterilization of at least 60,000 Americans. “In some states, especially the ones with the biggest sterilization programs, it played out in racialized ways,” on Mexican and African-American women particularly, Stern says. In Puerto Rico, a program funded by the U.S. government and run by Planned Parenthood eventually sterilized one-third of the island’s women between 1937 and 1968.
The laws fell out of favor in the U.S. only after World War II, when Americans were exposed to the graphic horrors of Nazi eugenics. The ideas guiding these laws were not so easy to remove, though, not least because American eugenicists influenced and collaborated with the Nazis. Hitler considered their work an impressive model for his own eugenic goals, sending fan mail to prominent authors, and American theorists were in regular contact with Nazi policy-makers about how to adapt U.S. laws for German use.
Although American sterilization rates declined sharply from tens of thousands per year to a few hundred in the late 1950s, sterilization as incentive continued as a replacement for explicitly eugenic procedures in many states, particularly California and North Carolina. Single mothers who needed welfare benefits, sought release from a criminal charge, or wanted to regain custody of children removed by the state had to agree to permanent sterilization. While these laws never explicitly mentioned poor or black women, that’s who they affected most, just like the eugenics laws that preceded them. “They’re punitive sterilizations with eugenic undertones,” Stern said.
Legislators began to wipe eugenics laws off their books in the 1960s, when the reproductive rights movement took hold. But far from the public eye and public guilt, punitive sterilizations continued in states including Oregon and California, even though the Supreme Court, in 1942, banned the procedure, determining that it violated the Equal Protection clause and left inmates “forever deprived of a basic liberty.” But the ruling only applied to forced sterilization; if the state proved it held a compelling interest to sterilize an inmate, and the inmate agreed, the procedure could occur. Decades later, it became apparent that states were not consistently seeking consent: a 2013 Center for Investigative Reporting project found that California had paid doctors to sterilize at least 248 pregnant inmates between 1997 and 2010. The doctor who oversaw the procedures at one prison told CIR that “you save [a huge amount] in welfare paying for these unwanted children.” An official at another prison said it was “an empowerment issue for female inmates” who, she claimed, “would commit crimes so they could return to prison for better health care.”
Tennessee is among the minority of states that never had a eugenics law. But prosecutors there have used sterilization as a bargaining chip until very recently. In 2015, Brian Holmgren, an assistant district attorney in Nashville, was fired after reports emerged that he had included tubal ligation into plea deals at least once in four of the five preceding years. One of those cases involved a woman with a long history of mental illness whose child had died mysteriously; Holmgren demanded the mother undergo permanent sterilization as part of any plea that would place her in mental health care instead of prison. In an interview following his dismissal, Holmgren said he was “weighing public safety” when he introduced sterilization into the picture. Other states, including Virginia and Georgia, have incorporated permanent sterilization into plea deals in recent years, in cases with repeat-offender defendants whom prosecutors thought had too many children already. These justifications are just a shade away from being eugenic, said Stern. “You don’t have to scratch too far under the surface to see that arguments about cost savings, or ‘unfit parents,’ are not too far from basic assumptions that this person is not a fit biological specimen.”
Many states have incorporated sterilization into plea deals in recent years.
In all these cases, the prosecutor or judge involved believed that what they were offering defendants was truly optional, that no one was forcing anyone to take a sentence reduction or plea deal. In his statement, Benningfield said “participation is strictly voluntary,” and that he chose the 30-day sentence reduction because that length “seemed to be enough to get attention and consideration but not enough to be an offer too good to resist.”
But choice is nonexistent in this situation, according to John Raphling, a senior researcher on criminal justice in the U.S. for Human Rights Watch. “You’re holding people in jail, locking them in a cage, and then saying that the key to their release is accepting a medical procedure,” he told The Outline. “It’s coerced, even if it’s not permanent, and that’s unequivocally a human rights violation.” Anything that appears to be a choice when the state has complete control over another person simply isn’t. And even if it were, judges and prosecutors are not equipped to make health care decisions. “What should be a medical issue becomes a jail issue,” Raphling said. “We should be providing good and adequate health care and family planning services and not tying it to jail time.”
Information about the 32 women and 38 men who have so far taken Benningfield up on his offer was not immediately available. But data from the White County area provided to The Outline by the Tennessee Department of Health shows that the majority of adults dependent on illegal or controlled substances there are poor, white, and addicted to opioids. These are people who, according to Benningfield, are “allowing life to just happen to them” and need to “take responsibility.” This, too, is reminiscent of 20th-century American eugenics programs, said Stern. “One of the key ways the eugenics movement got going was with studies of families who were presented as unruly and not upstanding, a main one being the Jukes,” a pseudonymous clan of rural whites described in an 1877 study by sociologist Richard L. Dugdale as inbred degenerates whose hundreds of members placed an unacceptable burden on taxpayers. Social scientists would go on to use the Jukes’ supposedly genetic idiocy to justify decades of eugenic programs. “Those representations are quite similar to the way opioid users are represented now. There are a lot of similarities to the type of rhetoric that was used in the eugenic era,” Stern said.
Benningfield wrote in his statement that his “purpose was to protect children and help people in their rehabilitation efforts.” He may be well-intentioned, but the effect of his actions is undeniable, said Raphling. “He’s coercing poor people to have this procedure to prevent them from reproducing.” Given our nation’s history, it’s hard not to see that as a continuation of the despicable practice of eugenics.