EDITORIAL: Given state's shameful history, sterilizations need full review

Because of the horrible history of eugenics in California, any hint of forced sterilizations must be taken seriously. Allegations that doctors working for state prisons coerced female inmates into having tubal ligations need a complete and independent accounting.

The Center for Investigative Reporting, in a story published Sunday in The Bee, found that nearly 150 women were sterilized from 2006 and 2010 at the California Institution for Women in Corona or Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla. Several former inmates and prisoner advocates told CIR that medical staff pushed pregnant women to sign up for the surgery.

The explanation from doctors and officials is that they wanted to offer prisoners the same reproductive health choices as women on the outside. The federal health receiver's office, which has been in charge of medical care in the 33 state prisons since 2006, says that all the women signed consent forms.

Yet it's because women in prison are so vulnerable to duress that there are strict limits on sterilizations. Federal money cannot be used; if state money is spent, top medical officials have been required to sign off on each case since 1994. That didn't happen, according to the CIR account.

At best, physicians and prison officials displayed an appalling ignorance of the rules. At worst, they betrayed patients' trust and ventured close to past abuses in which forced sterilization was used to stop criminals, the mentally ill and the poor from having more children.

The health receiver's office says that once it found out the procedures had been occurring, they were stopped.

Still, the full extent of what went wrong needs to be determined. An inquiry should look at whether anyone ought to have been disciplined and should make sure all the necessary safeguards are now in place.

Unfortunately, it's not clear who would do the investigation. The attorney general's office referred queries to the Office of the Inspector General, which monitors state prisons. But it says it doesn't have jurisdiction over this medical procedure.

In 1979, the Legislature rightly banned forced sterilizations. There can be no backsliding whatsoever.