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Federal suit claims Tennessee's "birth-control-for-sentence-reduction" policy violates constitutional rights of prison inmates

[JURIST] A former inmate of the White County Jail, Christel Ward, filed suit [Complaint, PDF] in the US District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee [official website], Northeastern Division on Thursday claiming that her constitutional rights had been violated when she was offered free birth control in exchange for a promised sentence reduction. Ward claims that she still has the unwanted birth control device [AP report] in her arm, and her sentence was ultimately never reduced. The complaint names in particular Sheriff Oddie Shoupe [official website], Deputy Donna Daniels, and Tennessee state Judge Sam Benningfield as defendants and alleges that the birth-control-for-sentence-reduction

policy is Eugenics with-a-twist: an official program ratified and implemented by Sheriff Shoupe that dangled a 30-day reduction in jail time, but only in exchange for Ms. Ward and other convicted misdemeanants giving up their constitutional right to procreate, by agreeing to some form of sterilization (vasectomy for males; three-to-five-year birth-control implant for women). This unconstitutional program strikes at the very heart of voluntary consent because consent is no consent at all—when consent is unduly coerced by government officials.

Borrowing a famous quote from the late Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the complaint further alleged that the policy has deemed Ward and other prison inmates at the White County jail as "the problem of the unfit," "feeble minded," and "imbeciles." Benningfield had rescinded his order [ACLU press release] implementing the policy in July amid pressure from the ACLU of Tennessee [advocacy website] and the state health department [official website]. Ward is just one among many White County jail inmates who underwent the allegedly coerced birth control procedures.

Reproductive rights [JURIST backgrounder] continue to be a controversial issue in the US with the issue escalating after the election of President Donald Trump [official profile]. Earlier this week, Oregon Governor Kate Brown [official website] signed a bill into law [JURIST report] that expands access to abortions and birth control and prohibits health benefit plans from imposing a deductible, coinsurance, copayment or any other cost sharing requirements on such services. In June, Texas Governor Greg Abbott [official website] signed a series of abortion regulations [JURIST report] into law requiring the burial or cremation of fetal tissue, banning the donation of fetal tissue, and banning abortions performed though partial-birth or dilation and evacuation procedures. On that same day, the Delaware General Assembly [official website] approved a bill ensuring that the provisions of Roe v. Wade remain legal [JURIST report] at the state level should the historical case be overturned. In February, the US House of Representatives (the House) [official website] approved a bill [JURIST report] overturning the Obama administration law prohibiting states from denying federal funding to Planned Parenthood [advocacy website]. The previous week, the Pennsylvania Senate [official website] approved a bill [JURIST report], putting Pennsylvania in line to become the seventeenth state to pass a bill banning abortions past 20 weeks. In January, the House passed [JURIST Report] the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act of 2017 [text, PDF] that makes permanent [JURIST report] certain restrictions on federal funding for abortion.

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