You may have heard about White County General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield’s unconstitutional practice of offering reduced jail time in exchange for willingly undergoing a vasectomy or a birth control implant, which he has now rescinded.
Healthy and Free Tennessee and coalition partner Free Hearts, an organization led primarily by formerly incarcerated women in support of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated mothers and their children, join the many voices speaking out against this harmful practice. Though we support widespread access to a range of contraceptive options for everyone in Tennessee, we do not support the targeting of vulnerable incarcerated populations for long-acting birth control or sterilization. We see this as an attack on the reproductive freedom of Tennesseans, particularly incarcerated women.
Though we are glad that this case in White County has garnered national attention, coercive sterilization of women through the criminal legal system in Tennessee is not new. While we firmly believe that this unconstitutional practice should not be practiced on anyone of any gender, we want to acknowledge that it disproportionately impacts women and that it is closely related to other attacks on reproductive freedom in Tennessee such as abortion restrictions, the elimination of sex education in schools, and the state policing of motherhood that punishes poor women and women of color.
Healthy and Free Tennessee and Free Hearts believe that the increasing distribution of LARCs in Tennessee jails -- 41 jails as of January 2017 -- is coercive and in direct response to the opioid crisis and the stigma around perinatal drug use. The practice of targeting people of color and poor people for birth control and sterilization has a long history rooted in racism in the United States going back more than one hundred years. Both Tennessee’s fetal assault law, which Healthy and Free and other advocates worked to defeat in 2016, and the targeting of incarcerated women with LARCs is rooted in the same harmful mentality: that pregnant women and people who use drugs should not be allowed to have children or parent their children and deserve punishment rather than treatment.
Healthy and Free Tennessee and Free Hearts believe the best way to address disordered substance use and pregnancy is with affordable and accessible medication assisted treatment (MAT). Tennessee lacks adequate treatment centers for people struggling with substance use and the waiting lists are backed up for years, an ongoing public health problem in the state. We see funding for treatment and support for drug users as the best way to address substance use disorder. We should not punish parents for not getting treatment when treatment services are severely lacking in this state.
In this struggle against coercive practices, we believe it is important to center the voices and work of those who are directly impacted. Healthy and Free Tennessee and Free Hearts began an important partnership this year with Healthy and Free supporting Free Hearts in their advocacy for the adoption of primary caretaker legislation in Tennessee. This legislation, which would affect mostly women, asks courts to take into account an individual’s status as a primary caretaker of dependent children during sentencing for nonviolent offenses and to prioritize alternatives to incarceration in order to help keep families together.
We recognize that the right to parent is a critical element of reproductive freedom and believe this partnership is crucial to insure reproductive freedom for all, but especially for those most vulnerable to state interventions like incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. We believe Tennessee should follow the lead of directly affected women in developing solutions addressing issues related to substance use disorders and the opioid epidemic, rather than create punitive and coercive policies that further stigmatize disordered substance use.
Thank you to all who spoke out against these harmful practices over the past few weeks. Together, we will work to eradicate these punitive policies in Tennessee and educate Tennesseans about the harms that they cause.