Voices of Justice Now: Sterilization in the Prisons

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Robin Levi, Human Rights Director at Justice Now , is a bi-racial Jewish woman and attorney who has been working to protect and promote the human rights of women worldwide, especially women of color in the United States. She tries, and usually fails, to balance this paid work with taking care of her two daughters (with some help from her husband) and doing unpaid work in her many communities.
At Justice Now we examine the way the California prison system destroys people’s reproductive capacity. First, long sentences can keep people in prison through their reproductive years. And second, abysmal health care has led a significant number of people to face infertility. For example, although people in women’s prisons are at high risk for cervical cancers, annual Pap smears are performed erratically and follow up is often nonexistent, thus permitting cancers to progress undiagnosed and unaddressed. We have been most shocked by the high number of people who have lost their reproductive capacity through the overly aggressive use of hysterectomies. Too often hysterectomies appear to be the first option for medical problems, such as fibroids, that may have more effective and less drastic cures. We also have spoken with many people who have had partial and full hysterectomies that were later deemed unnecessary. Almost all of the people receiving these questionable hysterectomies were Black and Brown, so we see these as a continuation of the historical forced sterilization of women of color.
We address this and other abuses through human rights. Although there are many international treaties and resolutions that define human rights, at Justice Now we believe that human rights are basically what you need to be fully human and that we must define human rights for ourselves. Thus we do human rights research in partnership with people inside women’s prisons – as they are best able to pinpoint what they most need, and to articulate the remedies to get there. After a training in formal human rights law and research tactics, we work with them to select which abuses they want to work on. They selected to work first on the right to family, especially Article 16 of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (which is not ratified by the United States), which highlights the right to “decide freely and responsibly [] the number and spacing of their children.� Most recently, Justice Now worked with people inside and our allies at the Transgender, Gender Variant, Intersex Justice Project and WILD for Human Rights to author and bring our joint shadow report on the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to Geneva.

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  • BabyPop

    Wow – excellent post. I had to have a radical at 26 for cervical cancer and constantly wonder if it was the right course of action. Ultimately, I have come to terms with the fact that it probably was, but since then I have been so much more interested in how infertility coincides with pro-choice and feminism. Unnecessary infertility is another example of the anti-choice agenda, IMO.

  • LL

    This post amply demonstrates that the American eugenics movement of the early twentieth century has never completely gone away. It has merely changed its name and shape and continues to attempt to restrict the reproductive rights of people considered to be biologically, culturally, intellectually, and economically inferior. Prisons provide an easy way to separate desirable citizens from undesirable one and allow complete state control over the physical body (and reproductive capabilities) of imprisoned populations. That women of color are affected disproportionately doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.

  • more.joy.less.shame

    Very interesting post. I am obviously aware, considering my eyes are half open, that problems in the prison system disproportionately affect people of color. I hadn’t thought of this angle of “forced sterilization” in the prison systems yet.

  • Orie

    This is a testament to the corruption of the medical industry as much as the prison system. A hysterectomy is an expensive procedure. The provider stands to make thousands of dollars for a few hours of work. And professionalism, being hard to come by under the best of circumstances, obviously does not survive the prison setting.

  • Mina

    “First, long sentences can keep people in prison through their reproductive years.”
    Which reminds me, could lack of access to conjugal visits (if the inmate has a fertile partner of the other sex) and lack of access to sperm banks and IVF (if she doesn’t) count as practically sterilization too?
    “This is a testament to the corruption of the medical industry as much as the prison system. A hysterectomy is an expensive procedure. The provider stands to make thousands of dollars for a few hours of work. And professionalism, being hard to come by under the best of circumstances, obviously does not survive the prison setting.”
    Good point.

  • http://womanist-musings.blogspot.com/ Renee

    Since blacks are already over represented in the prison system it comes as know surprise that they are the focus of hysterectomies. This is nothing but a continuation of the forced sterilization of women of color. Imagine people think that there is actually equality today….

  • http://womanist-musings.blogspot.com/ Renee

    Since blacks are already over represented in the prison system it comes as know surprise that they are the focus of hysterectomies. This is nothing but a continuation of the forced sterilization of women of color. Imagine people think that there is actually equality today….