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Should We Encourage Sterilization of Prisoners?

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The Story: Inmates in a Tennessee county jail are being offered reduced jail time if they voluntarily agree to have a vasectomy or birth control implant.

The Background: On May 15, 2017, General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield of White County, Tennessee, signed a standing order that allows inmates to receive 30 days credit toward jail time if they undergo a birth control procedure, a local news station reports.

Women who volunteer receive a free Nexplanon implant in their arm, which helps prevent pregnancies for up to four years. Men who volunteer are given a vasectomy, free of charge, by the Tennessee Department of Health. In the two months since the policy was implemented, 32 women have received the implant, and 38 men were waiting to have the vasectomy procedure.

Judge Benningfield told NewsChannel 5 that he was trying to break a vicious cycle of repeat offenders who can’t afford child support and have trouble finding jobs.

“I hope to encourage them to take personal responsibility and give them a chance, when they do get out, to not to be burdened with children,” Judge Benningfield said. “This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves.”

Why It Matters: The significance of Judge Benningfield’s voluntary sterilization policy is not as a legal precedent. When challenged in the courts the policy will likely be ruled unconstitutional. The significance is also not as a national threat. Since few, if any, other judges in America will be adopting the policy, it will likely remain a local problem. 

For those of us outside White County, Tennessee, the policy is not so much a direct or even potential threat as it is a moral Rorschach test. Our reaction to the news is a gauge for how we view children, eugenics, and treatment of the poor and vulnerable.

Many Christians may initially be sympathetic to Judge Benningfield’s claim that his policy merely encourages prisoners to “take personal responsibility.” They may view it as a form of benign paternalism, or what President Obama’s regulation czar Cass Sunstein called “libertarian paternalism”—having the government provide incentives for citizens to do what is in their best interest. But while the policy is certainly paternalistic, it is far from benign.

While it should be obvious how such an incentive exploits the vulnerable, let’s consider a hypothetical example. 

Imagine two 19-year-old men, John and Jack, get into a fight. During the altercation, John causes Jack to fall and break his arm. Since John started the fight he is charged with assault and battery. Unable to pay for a lawyer, he is assigned a public defender who urges him to take a plea bargain in which he’ll only have to spend 60 days in jail.

During sentencing, though, John is told he can reduce his sentence in half by agreeing to be surgically sterilized. Frightened by the thought of spending any time in jail, and knowing every week of being out of work will push him deeper into debt and poverty, John accepts the condition to have a vasectomy.

Ten years later, John is married and wants to have children of his own. If he can afford the $5,000 to $15,000 for a vasectomy reversal, he may have a 50-50 chance of having a child. If not, John may never be able to have children of his own.

But that outcome is precisely why such policies are put in place. We may not like to admit it, but we sometimes believe people like John—poor and prone to reckless behavior—shouldn’t be having children at all. And some will even wonder why we’d want impoverished convicted criminals to pass on tainted genes to children who may end up being a burden on the state.

Those are not uncommon thoughts. Nor are they original. That was, after all, the motivation behind the creation of Planned Parenthood.

Margaret Sanger and other “benign paternalists” were advocates of the eugenics movement, specifically of negative eugenics, which promoted the reduction of sexual reproduction and sterilization of people with undesired traits or economic conditions. On a radio show, Sanger is reported to have said that “morons, mental defectives, epileptics, illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, and dope fiends” ought to be surgically sterilized, such as through the use of vasectomies.

Judge Benningfield and those who approve of his policy will likely cringe at hearing they are promoting eugenics. We may not want to hear the truth, but we become advocates for eugencis when we support the state deterring the poor and vulnerable from being “burdened with children.”

We can and should, of course, support the decision of individuals to be prudent in their family planning, such as encouraging people to wait to have children after developing a financially stable marriage. But we should never cross the line into using coercion, much less the power of the state, to determine who should have kids. As the Bible says, “Children are a heritage from the LORD, offspring a reward from him” (Psalm 127:3, NIV). Once we truly come to believe that claim we’ll recognize we don’t need to tell God who is and is not be worthy of bearing children. 

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