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Weekend Read: Forced sterilization in exchange for freedom

Since May, people who have been convicted of a crime in Sparta, Tennessee, can reduce the length of their sentence on one condition: They must agree to be sterilized.

The article that served as the basis of this edition of the Weekend Read reported that people were offered sterilization in exchange for a reduced sentence. As the article – and this Weekend Read – note, however, women were offered the option of a birth control implant.

“I hope to encourage them to take personal responsibility,” said Judge Sam Benningfield, who approved the program.

In the two months since the policy went into effect, 32 women have received a birth control implant called Nexplannon, and 38 men are waiting to have a vasectomy.

Whether Benningfield knows it or not, the people he is sterilizing in the White County jail are merely the latest in a long line of incarcerated and low-income people to be sterilized under coercion or force by the criminal or social welfare systems in the United States.

In 1907, Indiana became the first state to pass a law allowing for compulsory sterilization of “confirmed criminals” and “idiots.” Thirty-one states soon followed suit.

In 1972, we sued on behalf of two young sisters who were sterilized in 1972 without their consent in Alabama. Sterilization laws began to be dismantled during that era, but eugenics practices have continued around the country. In California, for example, nearly 150 female prisoners underwent tubal ligations without their lawful consent between 2004 and 2013.

America is not the only country to forcibly sterilize its citizens in the 21st century. In Europe, if a transgender person wanted to change their name or gender on government-issued documents, nearly two dozen countries mandated their sterilization until April of this year, when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that requirement to be an institutionalized violation of human rights.

But that victory for transgender rights came only after a sustained campaign by the hate group Alliance Defending Freedom to try to keep the sterilization requirement.

“Equal dignity does not mean that every sexual orientation warrants equal respect,” wrote ADF International in an intervention brief.

Obviously, we disagree. But ADF’s efforts to see a continued policy of mandated sterilization of transgender people are in keeping with its support of the fraudulent practice of gay-to-straight conversion therapy and the argument of its first president, Alan Sears, that pedophilia and homosexuality are "intrinsically linked" (a dangerous falsehood long propagated by anti-LGBT hate groups).

Such stances are why we named Alliance Defending Freedom a hate group — and why, as David Perry writes of incarcerated people for The Marshall Project, “No one should be compelled to trade their reproductive freedom for corporal freedom.”

We’ll keep fighting for the rights of transgender and incarcerated people alike.

The Editors.

PS Here are some other pieces this week that we think are valuable:

SPLC's Weekend Reads are a weekly summary of the most important reporting and commentary from around the country on civil rights, economic and racial inequity, and hate and extremism. Sign up to receive Weekend Reads every Saturday morning.