Sterilization For Shorter Prison Sentences: Eugenics?


A Tennessee Judge in the United States started a program which grants inmates reduced prison sentences of up to 30 days in exchange for sterilization (vasectomies in men, IUD implants in women). His ultimate goal was to discourage inmates with drug offenses from parenting children they cannot support, or conceiving children while under the influence of drugs.

However, this exchange received an overwhelming amount of criticism; the ACLU deemed it as unconstitutional and others labeled it a new form of modern day eugenics.

We asked doctors on SERMO, is it ethical to offer shorter prison sentences if an inmate agrees to sterilize themselves?

Over 2500 doctors from 20+ countries weighed in on the debate, and an overwhelming majority of 77% of doctors asserted that no, it is not ethical:

 “What this does is selectively target those who have committed minor offenses and were likely unable to get a lawyer and so took a plea. Meanwhile, if they then do turn their lives around they can no longer be parents. Literally precluding good role models from having kids. Limitation on the right to reproduce and on bodily integrity in return for a decreased government-decreed penalty is inherently unconstitutional but this plan is riddled with defects as to its claimed purpose before we even get to that.” – Radiology, US 

“That is a form of eugenics and it is hardly freely given consent if done under threat of longer prison sentence. I think it is highly unethical for any doctor to co-operate in performing the surgery/insertion.” - Physician, United Kingdom

“It is not as ethical. If a prisoner believes that some therapeutic maneuvers, including sterilization, can help them in social recovery and in modifying their lifestyle, this can be acceptable. It must, however, be a free choice.” – Gastroenterology, Italy

 “In agreement with the ACLU, and this notion of eugenics. Are non-prisoners more ‘fit’ to raise a child? Completely arbitrary. How would we approve this?” – General Practice, France

However, 23% of respondents claimed that they did believe this was ethical:

“…[V]asectomies can be reversed (admittedly with some difficulty) and IUDs can be removed, so I would hardly call this eugenics.” – Emergency Medicine, US

“They have a choice. If it were imposed without a choice, it would be wrong.” – Intensive Care, US

A handful of physicians who did not find this exchange ethical did, however, think it could be appropriate for sex offenders:

“I guess this applies to sexually-related crime. I couldn’t imagine having a vasectomy for failure to pay parking fines (unless it is a way to get a cheap snip). It may be a deterrent for young people before deciding on a life of crime.” – Pediatrics, Australia

The poll was fielded in August of 2017. 2507 physicians responded to the poll. The margin of error for the global poll was ±2%. More information about SERMO polling methodology can be found here.

Are you a physician? Log into SERMO to weigh-in on ethical questions with other doctors from around the world.


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