Eugenics in Tennessee

A recent news story from my home state of Tennessee brings up questions of informed consent, reproductive ethics, eugenics, opioid abuse, and other bioethical issues.  In May, White County judge Sam Benningfield issued an order that allows inmates to have their sentences reduced by thirty days if they consent to sterilization procedures: vasectomies for men and (reversible) Nexplanon implants for women.  Benningfield’s order is his response to the repeat drug offenders he sees in the courtroom.  He describes the sterilizations as a means to “encourage personal responsibility,” and also states that, “…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.”

This order is less surprising, perhaps, when considered in light of the United States’ very recent history of eugenics and forced sterilizations. As Kyle Sammin writes at The Federalist,

“[Benningfield’s] idea of ‘trying to break a vicious cycle of repeat offenders’ is, nearly word-for-word, an echo of the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Buck v. Bell, the 1927 case that upheld Virginia’s policy of sterilizing state asylum inmates without their consent. The decision by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes laid out a similar desire to break a cycle of reproduction by people the judge viewed as unworthy of life: ‘It is better…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….Three generations of imbeciles are enough.’”

Benningfield’s order deems inmates’ potential future children as unworthy of life because of their parents’ situations. It treats inmates not as human beings with dignity and agency in one of the most personal and significant areas of life, but as a senseless population to control.

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Steve Phillips
4 years ago

I agree that the judge’s order is wrong, but that it is wrong because decisions to consent to any medical care should be uncoerced including care for prisoners. I do not think that the judge is necessarily advocating eugenics. He appears to be saying that repeat drug offenders are poor parents and their children suffer from being raised by parents who are not capable of taking care of their children. It is wise for people who are not capable of being good parents to choose not to have children, but it is not right to coerce them into that decision by offering reduced sentences in return for sterilization. Eugenics in the 1920s said that traits such as mental illness are inherited and we could improve society by keeping those with mental illness from reproducing. It does not seem from what you have reported that the judge is saying that.