·  Legal News, Analysis, & Commentary

Civil Rights

Sterilization: A Problem to be Fixed?

— August 1, 2017

Two stories came together recently. One was about a Tennessee prison’s sterilization program, and the other was the falling sperm count of western men.

In Tennessee, judge Sam Benningfield signed a standing order in May that offered a choice, of sorts, to the men and women behind bars at the White County jail. They could either serve out their entire sentence, or they could choose to be released 30 days ahead of schedule in exchange for surrendering their fertility. Male prisoners opting for early release would undergo permanent sterilization in the form of a vasectomy, while women would receive Nexplanon, an implant that suppresses ovulation for up to three years.

The controversial move united strange bedfellows in opposition. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Tennessee released a statement calling the sterilization option unconstitutional, saying that it “violates the fundamental constitutional right to reproductive autonomy and bodily integrity by interfering with the intimate decision of whether and when to have a child.” The decision was also panned by anti-abortion outlets like LifeSite and Faithwire.

The program was in place for two months and provided 32 women and 38 men (or 6 and zero, depending on the source) with more or less permanent sterilization before media attention and public outcry prompted the judge to rescind the order. Benningfield claimed that he wasn’t hearkening back to our embarrassing history of eugenics and coerced sterilization of the Progressive Era, when “imbeciles” (who were often merely poor folks) were locked away in various facilities during their prime reproductive years (much like prisoners are nowadays). No, he says he meant to give them a chance to take personal responsibility to improve their lives without the burden of children. It sounded like a kinder, gentler version of the “sterilize welfare moms!” rhetoric that bubbles up now and then.

Inmates In Tennessee Offered Time Off Sentences In Exchange For Vasectomies, posted by Wochit News.

The irony here is that the Sterilization Snafu coincided relatively neatly with research recently published in the journal Human Reproduction Update concerning the plummeting sperm count of western men. Much like the infant and maternal mortality rate are key indicators of a country’s development and the quality of its healthcare system, a man’s health and lifestyle are reflected in his sperm count and vitality. A low sperm count is considered to be the result of environmental influences like chemical exposure, personal choices like smoking, and overall stress.

Previous studies were plagued by small sample sizes, limited methodology, and insufficient screening criteria, but the new study relied on a stricter research protocol, and controlled for variables such as age and abstinence. Findings indicated a remarkable reduction in sperm count and concentration among men living in developed, wealthy western nations. No such reduction was found in South American, African, or Asian men, although this may be the result of insufficient study among these populations.

The dramatic 50% reduction in sperm count over the last fifty years, though, suggests that we may be doing to ourselves what judge Sam Benningfield would prefer we do prisoners in his county, and I wonder whether there isn’t some kind of moral connection to be made here. (Could it be that as a species, we need to learn to take responsibility and make better choices for our future without having so many children? Perish the thought!)

The bipartisan outcry against coercive sterilization is admirable in an individual rights context, but the truth remains that so many of our problems, from poverty and crime to resource depletion and climate change have aspects related to overpopulation. The struggle of infertility is a real tragedy for countless couples who want to create families, but at the same time, having fewer children is the best way to mitigate climate change and get all of us through the coming hard times.

Historically, countless judges (whether they sit on a bench in a courthouse or in a tavern) have wanted to remove the reproductive capability of those they deem unfit, be it for economic, racial, or moral reasons. The final arbiter of justice, however, may be Mother Nature, and nature, as they say, bats last.


Tennessee Inmates are Being Offered a Horrifying Choice: Jail Time or Sterilization
U.S. judge to inmates: Get sterilized and we’ll reduce your prison time
ACLU-TN Statement on White County Inmate Sterilization and Birth Control Program
Did a Tennessee Judge Just Try to Bring Back Eugenics?
Tennessee judge, under fire, pulls offer to trade shorter jail sentences for vasectomies
The Forgotten Lessons of the American Eugenics Movement
Sperm Counts Have Plummeted Among Western Men, Scientists Confirm
Temporal trends in sperm count: a systematic review and meta-regression analysis
The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions

Join the conversation!