These days, it’s hard to read something in regards to feminist activism without hearing the phrase “war on women.” Despite important and sharp critiques regarding the limitations of the phrase, it continues to hold cache as a means to characterize the depth and fortitude of the conservative legislative attack on women’s reproductive rights. This attack, as characterized by many organizations that fight for access to reproductive rights, includes a full out state-based legislative strategy to restrict access to abortion via attacks on Medicaid coverage, earlier bans, mandatory ultrasounds, forced waiting periods, “fetal pain” bills, impossible physician and hospital requirements, mandatory parental involvement, and state-mandated counseling. Given all this, it’s hard to ignore the fact that there is indeed a deluge: a river of reactionary regressive political actions, one after another, in swift succession with the clear goal of making reproductive health care inaccessible.
Earlier this week, the Center for Investigative Reporting released a report revealing that, between 2006 and 2010, doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections sterilized at least 148 female inmates, without the required state approvals. The report, informed by the brilliant advocacy work of Justice NOW, found that coercive sterilizations occurred at both the California Institution for Women in Corona and Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla.
From the report:
One former Valley State inmate who gave birth to a son in October 2006 said the institution’s OB-GYN, Dr. James Heinrich, repeatedly pressured her to agree to a tubal ligation.
“As soon as he found out that I had five kids, he suggested that I look into getting it done. The closer I got to my due date, the more he talked about it,” said Christina Cordero, 34, who spent two years in prison for auto theft. “He made me feel like a bad mother if I didn’t do it.”
Cordero, released in 2008 and now living in Upland, Calif., agreed, but she says, “today, I wish I would have never had it done.”
Let’s pause here and take note of the eugenic history of the California Department of Corrections. In 2003, the California State Senate held hearings to discuss and shed light on the State’s history of eugenic practices, which included the sterilization of about 20,000 men and women between the years of 1909 and 1964. So significant and well known were these eugenic practices that historians say Nazi Germany sought the advice of the state’s eugenics leaders in the 1930s. Researchers documented these findings and presented them to CA legislators, resulting in formal apologies issued by then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Governor Gray Davis. Further, actions against the abuses suffered by incarcerated in California prisons and jails are again in the spotlight.
While it is certainly true that some of the women who received these tubal ligations did so willingly, here we must remember the structure and function of coercion, which relies on a distorted power dynamic, in which women were often asked for “consent” while pregnant or in labor, not to mention the racist statements made, on the record, by many of the prison officials performing these sterilizations.
Since Texas State Senator Wendy Davis stood on the floor of the Texas State Senate and filibustered for hours on end, my email inbox is flooded with requests for support and solidarity, and fundraising. These requests have been heartening to me. As a long-time abortion fund volunteer, I know first-hand what happens when clinics close, when further restrictions are placed on women as they fight to get access to basic health care. Poor women, young women, women of color, queer and trans people, those that live in rural communities, people with disabilities and numerous others who live at the margins of access to health care, are all at the center of this fight. The fight happening right now in Texas is one in which the politics of intersectionality, the linking, overlapping and diverging institutional oppressions, are in full force. The communities most affected the regressive House Bill 2 live at many different intersections.
It’s in solidarity with them (us) that I call give to the abortion funds in Texas. It is in solidarity with them (us) that I demand an intersectional analysis that names, accounts for, and addresses the multiple forms of oppression that so many of us face.
Clearly, then, if there were a “war on women” occurring in our country right now, it must include the kind of reproductive rights violations, that occurred and is occurring in California’s prisons? Coercive sterilizations must be counted amongst those egregious violations, surely, no? The ability to control one’s fertility, without coercion or constraint, is a central tenet of even the most mainstream reproductive rights organizations. Where then are the action alerts from the reproductive rights organizations? Where are the protests outside the CA prisons? Where are the marches and the rallies and the email blasts asserting that these actions, sanctioned by the government, are a violation of women’s human rights?
Who, we must ask, are the “women” in the “war on women” that many feminist organizations are decrying? Are they the women forcibly sterilized at the hands of the state? Are they the trans women that face repeated acts of aggression in the form of hate crimes and at the hands of law-enforcement officials? Are they poor women of color, immigrant women, queer women, and native women navigating a foster system that makes the right to have a family a matter of demonstrating fitness to parent? Are they queer immigrant women fighting to keep their families together while navigating a punitive and racist immigration system? Who are those women? Am I one?
Campaigns and Communications Director at Justice NOW, Courtney Hooks described the connection between the fight for rights for incarcerated people and the fight for reproductive justice:
One of the key tenets of reproductive justice is for people to be able to have a child, not have a child, and parent the children they have. Whether through premature death due to overcrowding, violence, and severe medical neglect; being locked up throughout one’s reproductive and family formation years; being cut off from ones children and loved ones via long distances, exorbitant phone fees and visit denials; receiving abysmal baseline reproductive health care while inside that cuts one off from a full range of reproductive options and/or results in de facto sterilization, or being sterilized via hysterectomy, oophorectomy (removal of ovaries), or tubal ligation in the inherently coercive prison environment – imprisonment interrupts the human right to family of communities of color and communities living in poverty targeted for lock up. Imprisonment, and the sterilization abuse that happens behind bars–is a reproductive justice issue.
To ignore these women, these incarcerated bodies, seems to me more than a mere oversight. It is more than a political mistake, borne of limited resources and an onslaught of attacks. These limited resources are a reality, as are the political attacks on bodily autonomy. It is more than political expediency and the lowest-common-denominator politics to which we have become accustomed, from right and left alike.
Cynthia Chandler, Board Member and Co-Founder of Justice NOW*, spoke to the CFC about the challenges they face in connecting this issue with other movements: “There has long been a tension between reproductive rights and reproductive justice movements ** on the issue of the right to have a family. Fundamentally, we at Justice NOW believe that imprisonment is a form of reproductive oppression rendering some populations unable to reproduce.” This belief has made it difficult, in Chandler’s work, to build alliances with the reproductive rights movement specifically, and across progressive movements more broadly. “Prison issues are often siloed,” she said, naming the reliance on criminal justice solutions for many issues within the broader progressive community. “The progressive movement is very right-wing when it comes to criminal justice issues, with a very limited lens on what we find deplorable in prisons, and in regards to the human rights violations of people in prison,” she asserts. Currently ongoing is a hunger strike with 30,000 inmates in two-thirds of the states prisons, and at all four out-of-state private prisons refusing meals in protest of policies that hold prisoners in isolation indefinitely. Per Chandler’s assessment, this would be a perfect moment for the prisoners rights and prison reform groups in the state and around the country to link with them and their coalition to include a gender analysis in their advocacy.
The notable absence of this story in mainstream feminist conversations as well as in mainstream progressive and prison reform movements implies, however, that this might be an issue for a different movement. The agency, autonomy and human rights of women in prison is not seen as a “mainstream” reproductive rights issue, or a “mainstream” progressive social justice issue. That is a mistake. Because it is an incomplete, inaccurate and heartbreaking representation of what could and should matter to feminist social justice activism. Also, because it fractures us, as a movement, at a time when we need more concerted efforts, more power-sharing, and more collective strategy if we are to overcome the destructive political forces that we are facing.
In more ways than one, an intersectional politik is a matter of survival.
TO TAKE ACTION RIGHT NOW, PLEASE SIGN THIS PETITION TO THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA DEMANDING THE END OF THESE PRACTICES.
* A previous version of this post inaccurately characterized Cynthia Chandler as the Executive Director of Justice NOW. Amanda Scheper and Allison Barahona are the Co-Directors of Justice Now.
** For an exposition of the difference and divergence between the reproductive rights and reproductive justice frameworks see the following resources: