Nashville’s district attorney has called a halt to coerced sterilizations, which evoke a time when minorities, the poor and those considered mentally unfit were forced to undergo medical procedures to prevent them from having children.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Nashville prosecutors have made sterilization of women part of plea negotiations at least four times in the past five years, and the district attorney has now banned his staff from using the surgery as a bargaining chip after the latest case.
In the most recent case, first reported by The Tennessean newspaper, a woman with a 20-year history of mental illness had been charged with neglect after her 5-day-old baby mysteriously died. Her defense attorney says the prosecutor assigned to the case wouldn’t go forward with a plea deal to keep the woman out of prison unless she had the surgery.
Defense attorneys say there have been at least three similar cases in the past five years, suggesting the practice may not be as rare as people think, and may happen more often outside the public view and without the blessing of a court.
Sterilization coerced by the legal system evokes a dark time in America, when minorities, the poor and those deemed mentally unfit or “deficient” were forced to undergo medical procedures that prevented them from having children.
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“The history of sterilization in this country is that it is applied to the most despised people — criminals and the people we’re most afraid of, the mentally ill — and the one thing that these two groups usually share is that they are the most poor. That is what we’ve done in the past, and that’s a good reason not to do it now,” said Paul Lombardo, a law professor and historian who teaches at Georgia State University.
Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk agrees. A former defense attorney who took over the office in September, he recently ordered lawyers in his office not to seek sterilization by defendants. He said he hadn’t heard of it happening before, but had never asked about it.
Funk said people could be ordered to stay away from children, and the state wouldn’t have to resort to such invasive measures. “The bottom line is the government can’t be ordering a forced sterilization,” Funk said.
However, such deals happen.
In West Virginia, a 21-year-old unmarried mother of three agreed to have her tubes tied in 2009 as part of her probation after she pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute marijuana. Last year, a Virginia man who fathered children with several women agreed to undergo a vasectomy in exchange for less prison time in a child-endangerment case.
Forced sterilization came up in a different way in California last year, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that banned state prisons from forcing female inmates to be sterilized. The law was pushed through after the Center for Investigative Reporting found that nearly 150 female prisoners had been sterilized between 2006 and 2010. An audit found that the state failed to make sure the inmate’s consent was lawfully obtained in every case.
The most recent Nashville case involved Jasmine Randers, 36, who had been under court supervision for mental illness when she left her home state of Minnesota. She gave birth in West Memphis, Ark., fled a homeless shelter and arrived in Nashville, said her attorney, assistant public defender Mary-Kathryn Harcombe.
Court records show Randers reported awakening in a motel, where she’d slept in a bed with the baby, to find the child unresponsive. She reportedly called a taxi two hours later and took the child to a hospital, where the infant was pronounced dead. There was no sign of injury, and the cause of death was undetermined.
Police later learned that in 2004, Randers stabbed herself in the stomach while pregnant, though the fetus was not harmed. She told investigators it happened when she fell down some stairs while cutting fruit.
The assistant district attorney who worked the case, Brian Holmgren, was once a senior attorney with the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse and serves on the international advisory board of the National Center for Shaken Baby Syndrome. He has been both praised and criticized for his aggressive courtroom tactics on behalf of children.
Harcombe said Holmgren had previously asked that another client agree to be sterilized to get a plea deal. She refused.
Holmgren did not respond to several messages seeking comment.
Assistant public defender Joan Lawson, who also supervises other attorneys, said she also had been involved in cases in which a prosecutor had put sterilization on the table. She said it was typically not an explicit demand and was made off the record.
“It’s always been more of ‘If your client is willing to do this, then I might be inclined to talk about probation,’ ” Lawson said.
This time, when Holmgren insisted Randers undergo sterilization to avoid prison, Harcombe complained to Holmgren’s boss. The district attorney took over the case, and Randers was not sterilized. The prosecutor agreed Randers was mentally ill, and she was institutionalized after being found not guilty by reason of insanity.