Defending Judge Benningfield’s Vasectomy Program

You may have seen this story about Judge Benningfield’s program where prisoners can get reduced jail time for a vasectomy or a birth control implant.

The ACLU made the following statement about the program:

“Offering a so-called ‘choice’ between jail time and coerced contraception or sterilization is unconstitutional. Such a choice violates the fundamental constitutional right to reproductive autonomy and bodily integrity by interfering with the intimate decision of whether and when to have a child, imposing an intrusive medical procedure on individuals who are not in a position to reject it. Judges play an important role in our community – overseeing individuals’ childbearing capacity should not be part of that role.”

But is the vasectomy order unconstitutional?  Under current law, no.  There are three relevant Supreme Court cases, and all of them are in Judge Benningfield’s favor.

1. Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927)

In Buck v. Bell, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., held that a state statute that permitted compulsory sterilization for the “unfit” did not violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

2. Skinner v. Oklahoma, 316 U.S. 535 (1942)

The Skinner Court held that a law that required sterilization for blue collar crimes but not white collar crimes was unconstitutional because it violated the Equal Protection Clause.

3. Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349 (1978)

Stump v. Sparkman involved a young woman who sued a judge who had erroneously ordered that she be sterilized as a minor.  Noting that there was no law prohibiting a judge from considering and ruling on a sterilization petition, the Supreme Court determined that the judge was immune from suit, even if his actions were procedurally flawed.

Regarding Judge Benningfield’s vasectomy order, there is no law stating that he cannot make such an order.  So like the judge in Stump, even if Judge Benningfield’s order is flawed, he should be immune from civil suit.

Moreover, Judge Benningfield’s order is not even flawed.  It’s lawful.  His order does not discriminate between types of crimes.  More importantly,  unlike the orders in Skinner and Stump, Judge Benningfield’s program is voluntary.  He has not forced a single person to get a vasectomy or implant.

Now, the ACLU will argue that trading 30 days in jail for a vasectomy “forces” the inmate to get a vasectomy.  But that changes the definition of “force.”  At most, the program “encourages” some people to get vasectomies.  In reality, the program provides inmates with an extra option to reduce jail time.  And that is an option that a number of inmates are happy to take.

Judge Benningfield’s program is legal.  Furthermore, not only is his program legal, it is also ethical.  While the program decreases the happiness of some inmates, it prevents the suffering of drug addicted and unwanted babies.  It frees up tax payer dollars for education, healthcare, etc.  Finally, it helps many inmates get back on their feet instead of being burdened by unwanted pregnancies and the resulting obligations.



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