In NC, Dignity for Incarcerated Women Bill Must Address Forced Sterilizations

Duke University
Jun 1 · 3 min read

Being pregnant behind bars is a nightmare beyond what most of us can imagine: in jails and prisons, pregnant women suffer severely inadequate medical care, serious health complications, and more. A new bill under consideration in North Carolina with bipartisan support could greatly improve those conditions. Yet the bill has a glaring omission: it is silent on the deplorable instances of forced sterilizations in our jails and prisons.

When I was 17, I started working with teenagers who were incarcerated in a youth detention center, forming lasting friendships over two years of visits bridged by letter-writing. Over the years, my friends described many health problems they faced while incarcerated — struggles with scoliosis, insomnia and more. When women in prison face pregnancy, too, the health burdens only increase.

I’ve thought of those friends and other individuals who are incarcerated as North Carolina legislators consider the Dignity for Women Who are Incarcerated Act (HB 608). The bill was unanimously passed in the N.C. House on May 10th and is currently being debated in the N.C. Senate.

If passed, the bill would limit the awful practice of shackling pregnant individuals before, during and after labor. It would also provide free prenatal, labor and delivery care, and prevent immediate separation of newborns from their mothers.

Yet the bill does not address the ugly history in our state and country of forced sterilizations of incarcerated people. Such permanent birth control measures, which occur without consent or under duress, have plagued our jails and prisons since the 1900s.

The list of state-sanctioned forced and coerced sterilizations of specific groups is long. Doctors performed nonconsensual or questionable sterilizations on people who were poor and people who were mentally ill during the 20th century in Minnesota, over a third of Puerto Rican women from the 1930s to the 1970s, Chicana mothers in Los Angeles during the 1960s and 1970s, 48 women in just one month at Claremore Indian Hospital in 1974, and many women detained by ICE in the past year.

And North Carolina has been especially guilty of this reproductive injustice, repeatedly weaponizing gynecology as a eugenic and genocidal tool. Doctors sterilized some 7,600 people without their consent — a disproportionate number of them Black — in North Carolina from 1929 to 1974. During this time, the North Carolina Eugenics Board approved sterilizations of Black individuals, welfare recipients and people with mental illnesses. North Carolina has since created the Office of Justice for Sterilization Victims and initiated a reparations program, but more must be done to prevent history from repeating itself.

Forced and coerced sterilizations are often traumatic and life-altering. A doctor may perform a tubal ligation after the birth without specifically seeking consent, may offer incentives for sterilization, or may fail to tell the patient about having performed the procedure at all.

The bill currently before the state legislature will do nothing to address and acknowledge this egregious injustice — a very unfortunate oversight.

Bipartisan efforts to improve conditions for pregnant individuals who are incarcerated are heartening. But we must push further.

As the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act is debated in the North Carolina Senate in the coming weeks, we must put pressure on our representatives to use this opportunity to further prevent forced and coerced sterilizations. Reproductive justice for my friends and our community members who are incarcerated is long overdue.

Bella Larsen is an undergraduate at Duke University studying public policy and psychology.

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