If West Virginia state Sen. Randy Smith (R) has his way, residents of the state could face a loss of their reproductive rights in exchange for their freedom. Smith told his constituents he planned to introduce a bill in the next legislative session to reduce the region’s substance abuse and addiction rates by offering those convicted of drug offenses reduced sentences for having vasectomies or tubal ligations.
“If you want to lessen your prison sentence, if you’re a man, you can get a vasectomy so you can’t produce anymore. If you’re a woman, then you get your tubes tied, so you don’t bring any more drug babies into the system,” Smith told audience members, according to the Cumberland Times-News. “Now, you don’t have to. If you don’t, you’re going to jail for a very long time.”
While many find his words shocking, Smith’s plan is tantamount to what the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) term “state-sponsored eugenics.” West Virginia follows several states to reintroduce such bills in recent years.
In 2017, White County Tennessee General Sessions Court Judge Sam Benningfield designed a program with the aid of the county’s Sheriff Oddie Shoupe, that would shave approximately 30 days off a prison sentences for drug offenders. Forty-two men agreed to undergo vasectomies, though none reportedly went through with the procedures.
Eugenics is a social movement based on discarded scientific theories that behaviors and conditions including criminality, poverty and low intelligence, passed from parents to offspring for up to 10 generations. Eugenics classifies non-Whites as sub-human, intellectually inferior, and generally “unfit,” making segregation and sterilizations necessary to protect (white) society. These theories took root in the U.S. beginning in the 1830s, and were used to craft education, medical, banking and housing policies, as well as U.S. Supreme Court decisions like the Dred Scott case and Plessy v. Ferguson.
By the 1930s, more than thirty states in America had enacted laws to sterilize citizens who were socially weak – this included the poor, the infirmed, those convicted of a crime, and those like the ones in West Virginia today, struggling with addictions to alcohol and drugs.
The ACLU of Tennessee objected to what it said was a coercive, unconstitutional court practice.
“The Constitution protects people’s right to choose whether and when to procreate. The judge’s initial order undermined this constitutional protection because it amounted to the government coercing people not to procreate,” Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN executive director said in a statement. “Though the program was technically ‘voluntary,’ spending even a few days in jail can lead to the loss of jobs, child custody, housing, and vehicles. To the individual faced with these collateral consequences of time spent behind bars, a choice between sterilization or contraception and a reduced jail sentence is not much of a choice at all.”
Similar schemes have existed in recent years in other states including Oklahoma, where in 2018, a woman convicted of passing counterfeit checks faced up to 10 years in prison, but had it reduced to 16 months after agreeing to a hysterectomy. The prosecutor used Oklahoma’s Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act (1935), which used sterilization as a means of keeping criminals from giving birth to a new generation of “born criminals.”
Benningfield and Shoupe’s program was officially terminated by a Nashville federal court in 2019.
Coercing vulnerable populations to undergo sterilizations to avoid prison in the U.S. – particularly African Americans – is not new. Between 1958 and 1964, the Mississippi State Legislature attempted to pass four separate pieces of legislation centered on the compulsory sterilization of black Mississippi women. In 1964, the state of Mississippi introduced legislation, HB-180, to arrest unwed Black mothers of a felony. A conviction carried a mandatory prison sentence of 3 to 5 years, which would be waived if the woman agreed to having a hysterectomy.
The stated goal of HB-180 was to tackle immorality and reduce welfare aid; however, many of its backers, including State Representative Stone Barefield of Hattiesburg, believed it would intimidate Black women into leaving the state or submitting to the surgery. Before the Mississippi House of Representatives, Barefield said, “when they start cutting they’ll head for Chicago,” alluding to the power the threat of hysterectomies had of forcing Black women to flee to Northern cities.
HB-180 was downgraded from a felony to a misdemeanor and made punishable by 30 to 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $250 before passing in the Mississippi Legislature.
Smith’s proposed West Virginia legislation revives this eugenic history for a new generation with African Americans five times more likely to be arrested for possession than whites.
Dr. Shantella Sherman is a historian whose discourse charts the American eugenics movement and its impact on popular culture and everyday life. #EugenicallySpeaking is a monthly series examining eugenics in current events.