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Still happening, still repugnant

As Christina Cordero remembers it, the doctor would not take no for an answer.

"As soon as he found out that I had five kids, he suggested that I look into getting it done. The closer I got to my due date, the more he talked about it. He made me feel like a bad mother if I didn't do it."

The "it" is tubal ligation. He wanted to sterilize her.

Cordero, who is now 34, was serving time for auto theft at a California prison. She finally said yes, a decision she regrets seven years later. "I wish I would have never had it done."

We are indebted to the Center for Investigative Reporting, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated content provider, for the preceding account. It is contained in a troubling report, released last week, documenting that the California prison system sterilized as many as 250 women from 1997 to 2010, in violation of state rules. Women who had the procedure say they were pressured to do so.

The state reportedly paid doctors $147,460 for this service. Dr. James Heinrich, who operated on Cordero, says it's a bargain. "Over a 10-year period," he told CIR, "that isn't a huge amount of money compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children -- as they procreated more."

Maybe you think that makes perfect sense. Indeed, it's not hard to imagine someone saying the same thing on Fox "News" next week. After all, character assassination of the less fortunate has become commonplace. A certain wealthy presidential candidate famously described them as the 47 percent of us who are irredeemable.

But maybe you know enough of history to hear the awful parallel embedded in Heinrich's calculation. You see, this is not the first time Americans have had the bright idea of breeding out undesirables. Indeed, laws mandating forced sterilization were all the rage in America in the early 20th century. Even the Nazis were impressed. They modeled their statutes on ours.

The idea was to keep the nation's gene pool from being polluted -- and its economy burdened -- by the "feeble-minded," the habitually criminal and by families that produced generations of prostitution, promiscuity, alcoholism, poverty or disability. Some sought to do this through immigration restrictions designed to bar the racially inferior, others argued for killing mentally and physically defective children and still others favored forced sterilization.

The Supreme Court sanctioned the latter in a 1927 ruling against Carrie Buck. She was a "feeble-minded" 17-year-old daughter of a "feeble-minded" mother and an unwed mother herself. The court never met her. It relied on the testimony of an "expert," Dr. Harry Hamilton Laughlin, who himself never met her.

Buck was, in fact, a Virginia girl of normal intelligence who had been raped. But Laughlin, after reviewing test results, claimed that she was typical of the "shiftless, ignorant and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South." The court approved her sterilization 8-1.

"It is better for the world," wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, "if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. ... Three generations of imbeciles are enough." That ruling has never been overturned.

It is not such a prodigious leap from Holmes to Heinrich, who says women who claim he pressured them to be sterilized just "want to stay on the state's dole." Or to Michelle Malkin, who calls the poor "takers," or Ann Coulter, who calls them "animals." We have traveled far, only to wind up in this familiar place where the vulnerable and voiceless, the ones most deserving of our compassion, are regarded instead as inferiors and allowed to be victimized.

It is not happening again.

It is happening still.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist

for the Miami Herald.

lpitts@miamiherald.com