The unspeakable evil of the Tennessee eugenics program
Want to get out of jail early? Just sacrifice your fertility.
Under existing asset forfeiture laws, it is legal for government officials to seize your gambling winnings, your Dan Brown paperbacks collection, your Lucky Charms collectible cereal bowl and spoon sets, or a bag of paper clips you might have lying around. If you want to get out of jail early in White County, Tennessee, you might have to let them take your fertility too.
I wish I were joking. But there is actually nothing amusing about Judge Sam Benningfield's standing order signed on May 15 awarding inmates 30 days worth of credit toward their jail sentences if they agree to undergo a sterility-inducing procedure — a vasectomy for male offenders, a Nexplananon implant for females. Both procedures are available free of charge courtesy of the Tennessee Department of Health.
This is not some kind of innovative crime-reduction plan. It is eugenics.
How exactly it is possible for a judge in a general sessions court with juvenile jurisdiction to impose this order and arrange the gratis performance of these operations with state funds is a question best left to legal experts. The ACLU has released a statement denouncing the program as "unconstitutional." The local district attorney has called it "concerning," citing the difficulties of reversing a procedure undergone by impressionable young offenders looking for a speedy way out of their difficulties. But I am not interested in the constitutionality of the program.
It is evil.
Benningfield says his decision followed conversations with the health department, and that he hopes offenders will "make something of themselves." He claims that too many "drug addicts" have come to him unable to pay court-mandated child support. "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."
A win-win for whom? For a young man who on the spur of the moment and for understandable reasons wants to get out of jail but decades down the line finds himself unable to have a family? For a young woman unaware of the long-term consequences for her fertility posed by having an implant? For the taxpayers of Tennessee who would rather pay for one snip or rod than look after children and the poor and the marginalized? For the children who will now never be born?
It has been decades since this country has had anything resembling a serious public debate about the morality of contraception. Even conservative Catholic politicians — with rare exceptions — feel comfortable not following the logic of the church's teaching about life to its explicit and logical conclusion. Instead their focus tends to be on abortion, something that most evangelical Christians in this country oppose.
The closest we ever come to having it out about birth control is when the question of eugenics is raised. But the two questions cannot be separated from one another given the history of what used to be the contraceptive movement in this country. I will never understand why reputable mainstream politicians eagerly receive awards from Planned Parenthood, an organization founded by a woman who explicitly recommended the enforced sterilization of those she considered "unfit" or "feeble-minded" or "idiots." It would take an act of willful obtuseness to pretend that the practice of hawking free contraception and abortion today can be neatly separated from the ideology out of which the practice arose. Contraception and sterilization are eugenics.
Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, would certainly agree with Judge Benningfield about our moral duty to prevent those convicted of crimes from having children. "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," she once told an interviewer. "Delinquents, prisoners, all sorts of things just marked when they're born. That to me is the greatest sin that people can commit."
The lack of charity involved in the assumptions that people who have been convicted of crimes are incapable of repenting and that being parents can only abet their seemingly innate criminality, and that their children are predestined to commit crimes as well, is horrifying. People are not machines. Birth is not a technology that can be harnessed by the state for its sinister purposes. Nor is it a privilege that must be earned by supposedly upstanding citizens, revocable upon the first instance of bad behavior.