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.”
“[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.