A judge in White County, Tennessee, has made prisoners an offer some are finding hard to refuse: if they agree to be sterilized, they will earn a 30-day reduction in their sentence. Male offenders will undergo a vasectomy. Female offenders will receive a Nexplananon implant. These procedures will be performed gratis thanks to the generosity of the Tennessee Department of Health. Judge Sam Benningfield is the man who had this brainstorm, and on May 15, 2017, he signed it as a standing order.
Speaking to reporters from Sparta, Tennessee’s NewsChannel 5, Judge Benningfield said the idea came to him after he noticed that the same offenders returned time and again to his courtroom, typically on drug-related charges. Their addictions, the judge observed, make it difficult for them to find and hold onto jobs, much less pay child support.
“I hope to encourage them to take personal responsibility and give them a chance, when they do get out, to not be burdened with children,” the judge said. “This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves.” He went on to say, “I understand it won’t be entirely successful but if you reach two or three people, maybe that’s two or three kids not being born under the influence of drugs. I see it as a win, win.”
Judge Benningfield is being too modest. According to NewsChannel 5, since the order went into effect on May 15, 32 women have received the Nexaplanon implant, and 38 men are on a waiting list for a vasectomy.
What I’m about to offer next is more anecdote than evidence, but I’ll offer it anyway. Over the last two years, I’ve gotten to know four men who have done time — six and a half years, five years, two years, nine months (I guess he’s the underachiever in my random sampling). These men don’t know each other. All my conversations with them were one-on-one. And there was one point which all of them made: they would have done almost anything to get out of prison even one day sooner.
Bryant Dunaway, the district attorney for White County, has gone on record expressing his concern about the legal and ethical problems likely to arise from Judge Benningfield’s order. “It’s concerning to me,” Dunaway said. “My office doesn’t support this order.”
The ACLU has weighed in, and they have a point: “Offering a so-called ‘choice’ between jail time and coerced contraception or sterilization is unconstitutional. Such a choice violates the fundamental constitutional right to reproductive autonomy and bodily integrity by interfering with the intimate decision of whether and when to have a child, imposing an intrusive medical procedure on individuals who are not in a position to reject it.”
As a word guy, I appreciate the parsing of the judge, the district attorney, and the ACLU. But there is a word they are all avoiding — eugenics. That’s what this is. And eugenics stinks to high heaven.
The concept was advanced in 1869 by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin. Darwin had urged his readers to take control of their own evolution by rejecting the idea that they were slaves to their instincts. Instead, they should make sound, rational, positive choices about who they would marry and start a family. That is not a shocking suggestion. It is what mothers say to their sons when they plead, “Go find a nice girl.” It’s also the theme of every Jane Austen novel.
But Galton moved far beyond pairing up Mr. Darcy with Elizabeth Bennett. He imagined a system that gave “the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable.” Remember that phrase: “the more suitable races or strains of blood.”
In the 1920s, eugenics advocate Harry Laughlin, an American, testified before Congress regarding which races were “suitable” and which were “unsuitable.” Laughlin’s testimony influenced the congressmen when they crafted the Immigration Act of 1924 which restricted the number of immigrants from such “unsuitable” parts of the world as southern and eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
But Laughlin’s influence did end on Capitol Hill. He had a list of “undesirables” who should not be permitted to weaken the nation by reproducing. On that list were convicts, the physically and mentally disabled, alcoholics and drug addicts, even recipients of public or private charity. As a start, he urged state governments to sterilize prison inmates and asylum patients. In the early 1920s, about 3200 people were involuntarily sterilized. By 1938, as 29 states adopted Laughlin’s ideas, the number had climbed to 30,000 or more.
In 1927, a Virginia statute that provided for the sterilization of inmates in any state-supported institution was challenged, and came before the U.S. Supreme Court as the case of Buck v. Bell. Carrie Buck had been involuntarily sterilized in a Virginia asylum, State Colony for Epileptics and the Feeble Minded. Buck had a mental disability. So had her mother. So did her child. The court upheld the Virginia statute, with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes writing the opinion. “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind,” he said. “The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes…. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
It is a notorious quote that makes us cringe (and, by the way, was repeated in the movie, Judgment At Nuremberg). But there is another passage from Justice Holmes’ opinion that deserves our attention. He writes, “[There are] many defective persons who, if now discharged, would become a menace, but, if incapable of procreating, might be discharged with safety and become self-supporting with benefit to themselves and to society.” That is Judge Benningfield’s rationale, rooted in this odious Supreme Court opinion.
Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, agreed with Holmes’ opinion, and would have backed up Benningfield. She said, “I think the greatest sin in the world is bringing children into the world that have disease from their parents, that have no chance in the world to be a human being practically.”
Of course, the most notorious example of eugenics is Hitler’s Germany. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that the Nazis forcibly sterilized between 300,000 and 400,000 people. Most of them were prisoners or the mentally or physically handicapped. Gypsies were also sterilized because they were considered “asocial.” And as part of the Third Reich’s “Racial Hygiene” program, about 500 teenagers — boys and girls — who were of mixed African and German descent were sterilized.
Judge Benningfield and his supporters will argue that the policy in White County, Tennessee, is not at all like earlier incarnations of government-sponsored sterilization because the White County program is voluntary. “See! They volunteered to be sterilized! We have a waiting list!” Yes, they volunteered. And the state got these prisoners to volunteer by dangling in front of them the one thing they want above all others — to get out of jail sooner than their sentence requires. Strapping an undesirable to a gurney and rolling him or her into surgery is an act of violence. The White County technique is merely coercive.
Matthew Walther, reporting on the Benningfield story for the Week, reminds us, “Birth is not a technology that can be harnessed by the state…. Nor is it a privilege that must be earned by supposedly upstanding citizens, revocable upon the first instance of bad behavior.” Walther’s assessment is so obvious that it astonished me he even had to put it down on paper. Isn’t this one of those things we Americans refer to as “self-evident”? And yet here we are, with a judge and a state health department cheerfully assuring us that on the subject of who is a suitable human being, the government knows best.