Voices of Justice Now: Sterilization in the Prisons

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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