In today’s politically divided society, it’s rare that an issue sparks bipartisan moral outrage. But that’s exactly what happened recently over a Tennessee judge who offered to cut the prison sentences of inmates who received vasectomies or long-lasting contraceptive devices.
Back in May, General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield signed a standing order that allowed inmates at White County jail to have their sentences reduced by 30 days if they agreed to receive a vasectomy, or for women, a Nexplanon birth control implant that lasts up to four years. In in an interview with Tennessee’s WTVF-TV last week, the judge shared that the sterilization and contraceptive services were provided cost-free by the Tennessee Department of Health.
White County inmates were also offered two days off their jail sentences if they completed a State of Tennessee, Department of Health Neonatal Syndrome Education Program, which aims to educate people about the dangers of having children while under the influence of drugs.
“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. This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves,” Judge Benningfield told WTVF.
Judge Benningfield explained that his goal was to help break a “vicious cycle” of repeat offenders who often enter his courtroom on drug related charges, and when they are released, can’t afford child support and have trouble finding jobs.
“I understand it won’t be entirely successful but 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,” he added.
District Attorney Bryant Dunaway, who oversees prosecution of cases in White County, shared his concerns about the program with WTVF.
“It’s concerning to me, my office doesn’t support this order,” Dunaway said.
“It’s comprehensible that an 18-year-old gets this done, it can’t get reversed and then that impacts the rest of their life,” he added.
Last Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee released a statement regarding Judge Benningfield’s order:
Offering a so-called ‘choice’ between jail time and coerced contraception or sterilization is unconstitutional. Such a choice 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, imposing an intrusive medical procedure on individuals who are not in a position to reject it. Judges play an important role in our community – overseeing individuals’ childbearing capacity should not be part of that role.
Amid the widespread criticism, Benningfield rescinded the order yesterday in a one-page court filing, The Washington Post reported. He wrote that any inmates who elected for the procedures and took “serious and considered steps toward their rehabilitation” would still receive credit toward their sentences, but that the plan was otherwise terminated.
Further, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Health told the Post that state health officials opposed Benningfield’s policy from the start and denied the judge’s claims that the procedures were state-funded.
Benningfield, however, maintained that the department was involved. In his filing Thursday, he wrote that he was forced to rescind the order because the department had decided “it will no longer offer free vasectomies to White County inmates” and “will not provide the free Nexplanon implant” in exchange for shorter sentences.
“I wasn’t on a crusade,” Benningfield told the Times Free Press on Thursday. “I don’t have a ‘mission.’ I thought I could help a few folks, get them thinking and primarily help children.”
The problem with Bennigfield’s statement is that it mirrors the rhetoric of eugenicists throughout history who advocated for the sterilization, institutionalization, or death of entire races and classes of human beings.
Many pro-life advocates have identified abortion as the eugenics movement of our day. But as this case highlights, the attempted undermining of human dignity comes in many forms.
Sadly, abortion is far from a bipartisan moral issue in this country. It is particularly noteworthy, therefore, that a vocal majority of people in the medical, legal, and media communities were able to unilaterally denounce Bennigfield’s policy as the gross violation of human rights that it was. Thank God for that.