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The Return Of Eugenics? Tennessee Judge Issues Sterilization Program For Inmates

A Tennessee judge is gaining national media attention for his unique incentive offered to inmates upon sentencing: convicts can undergo a free taxpayer funded sterilization procedure and get a 30 day reduction in jail time. Dozens have already taken advantage of the program since Judge Sam Benningfield of White County signed a standing order in May which offers vasectomies for men and a less permanent birth control implant, called Nexplanon, for women. Currently, 38 male and 32 female inmates are signed up for the program which the county district attorney is now seeking to get shut down.

Judge Benningfield described the arrangement's purpose as "breaking a vicious cycle of repeat offenders who constantly come into his courtroom on drug related charges, subsequently can’t afford child support and have trouble finding jobs." The Tennessee Department of Health has reportedly given its approval for the local county program, which is now receiving fierce push back at the local and national levels, prompting a statement from the ACLU, which called an environment of coerced or legally pressured contraception and sterilization "unconstitutional" as a violation of basic individual rights.

White County District Attorney Bryant Dunaway has instructed his staff of prosecutors not to enter into any agreement related to Benningfield's program, and told local Channel 5 News that, "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." Local news presented the judge as innovative and benevolent, merely looking out for the community's interests, yet the endeavor is really nothing new. It actually hearkens back to a dirty little secret of the Progressive Era in America which rarely makes it into school textbooks: states once forced mass sterilization upon tens of thousands of citizens deemed "unfit" to produce families in a nation wide Eugenics movement that Hitler himself learned from.

Here are some fast facts about Eugenics in America and the Progressive Era:

Archival Eugenical Sterilization Map of the United States, 1935

  • The Progressive economists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw science as a means of social management and control. Eugenics (meaning "well-born") involved societal and scientific intervention to bring about the "fittest" population (as in the Darwinian concept "survival of the fittest") through various means, including forced sterilization, abortions, euthanasia, and discriminatory marriage laws.
  • Compulsory sterilization programs were established in over 30 states at the height of the Eugenics movement (1920's through mid-20th c.) which resulted in over 60,000 sterilizations of often perfectly healthy people. State and mental health boards would evaluate individuals and declare them "feeble-minded", mentally deficient, or merely capable of passing on bad genes. Prison inmates were often targeted, even petty offenders, as criminality was seen as an inheritable trait. Sometimes unsuspecting people would enter a hospital for simple Appendicitis but wouldn't figure out they'd been sterilized during their hospital stay until years or decades later.
  • Notable cases include Carrie Buck, a completely normal teenager, who after being raped at the age of 17 was committed to the "Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded" where she was sterilized against her will. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. concluded of Carrie's case that, "the principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.... Three generations of imbeciles are enough." California's Charlie Follett was sterilized as a child for merely being born to alcoholic parents. California accounted for about one-third of all compulsory sterilizations nation wide, and the state refused to ever compensate Follet, even denying his request for a simple burial plot after he died impoverished in 2012.
  • Planned Parenthood was a product of the Eugenics movement. The abortion provider's founder, Margaret Sanger, was among the most prominent eugenicists of the early 20th century, penning popular articles with titles like "The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda" which argued that this "new weapon of civilization and freedom" could solve "race problems" and result in "racial regeneration." Racial segregationists tended to see Eugenics as a method of ensuring "racial purity" - indeed what was known was "positive Eugenics" involved laws which sought to prevent inter-racial marriage.
  • Major corporate titans of the day, including the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Institution, and the Harriman railroad conglomerate were major funders of Eugenics research labs and committees.


Archival photo: Eugenicists used Anthropometry to measure "superior" physical traits.

  • The "American Breeder's Association" was America's first eugenic organization (established in 1906), and as the name suggests, viewed humans as cattle: "strong" and "fit" qualities of human variation were studied in order to promote "good breeding" in humans. Eugenicists used Anthropometry - the measuring and study of human proportions - to establish what superior humans looked like.
  • Sound familiar? Hitler was a great admirer of progressive America's Eugenics policies and the Third Reich was directly inspired of American eugenic institutions. Hitler wrote in Mein Kamph: "The demand that defective people be prevented from propagating equally defective offspring is a demand of clearest reason and, if systematically executed, represents the most humane act of mankind. It will spare millions of unfortunates undeserved sufferings, and consequently will lead to a rising improvement of health as a whole." Admiration went the other way too - in 1937 the American Eugenics Society issued official statements of praise for Nazi scientists as they attempted to "cleanse" the gene pool.

Tennessee Judge Benningfield's current program is sure to restart a conversation over Eugenics. While it's not currently to the point that inmates are "forced" into this arrangement, the catch-22 of "more jail time or get snipped" certainly could take us down a very dark and familiar path, a path that today's progressives and advocates of centralized state social planning would like us to ignore and forget.