After a long and shameful history, California finally banned the forced sterilization of prison inmates and mental patients in the 1970s; two decades later, the state put safeguards in place to make sure the practice didn't resume. But a new report by the Center for Investigative Reporting suggests that despite those laws, at least 148 female inmates underwent tubal ligations between 2006 and 2010 without the required approval by state medical officials.
Many of the women who were sterilized while housed at the California Institution for Women in Corona and Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla said they were coerced into agreeing to the procedure, according to the report. That allegation is deeply disturbing. But the fact that such procedures were performed without the mandated approval by a state medical committee is inexcusable.
Under the 1994 state law, every sterilization — including every tubal ligation — must be approved by state medical officials on a case-by-case basis. That's to ensure that female inmates don't feel pressured to undergo unwanted sterilization. Yet the medical committee has received no tubal ligation requests since at least 2008, according to the report.
Some state lawmakers, including Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), are asking the California Medical Board to investigate whether doctors who performed the procedures violated state law and ethical standards. Others are raising questions about the medical oversight of the state's prisons, which have been under the control of a federal receiver since 2006.
Given the nature of the allegation, nothing less than a full and public investigation is required, both to hold accountable those who failed to act and to determine whether sufficient safeguards are in place to prevent future abuses. And federal officials should explain how it is that the alleged forced sterilization occurred under their watch.
It is no secret that California's prison system — and especially its healthcare system — is in crisis. But the revelations raised by the Center for Investigative Reporting hark back to a dark chapter in California's history, when state officials endorsed (and a weekly Los Angeles Times column boosted) a policy of eugenics to rid society of "defectives" and the "feebleminded" by forcibly sterilizing them. Some 20,000 individuals, including prisoners, poor people and mental patients, were forced to undergo sterilization between the early 1900s and the mid-1960s. We thought those days were over.
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