The district attorney in Nashville, Tennessee recently had to take an unusual action: banning prosecutors from offering women plea deals in exchange for sterilization. The Associated Press reports that Nashville prosecutors have used sterilization as a “bargaining chip” four times in the last five years.
The latest case was the tipping point. Jasmine Randers, 36, woke up in the Nashville motel bed she was sharing with her five-day-old baby “only to find the child unresponsive,” the AP reports. The infant died overnight, with no cause of death reported. Randers has serious mental-health issues and was under court order to be committed in Minneapolis; she was on the run when her baby died. The prosecutor charged Randers with aggravated child neglect; according to Randers’ defense attorney, Assistant District Attorney Brian Holmgren said he would not entertain a plea deal unless Randers agreed to get her tubes tied. Nashville’s District Attorney Glenn Funk later told the Tennessean, “I have let my office know that that is not an appropriate condition of a plea,” and has officially banned prosecutors from offering plea deals for sterilization. (Randers, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity, is currently committed in a mental hospital in Tennessee.)
The Lexington Herald-Leader reports on three other cases in which defense attorneys say that prosecutors brought up sterilization in exchange for lesser sentences; in all three, the women gave birth to infants who tested positive for drugs. (Two of them said they were already sterilized, and the other woman refused.)
It’s tempting to shrug this story off, since no coerced sterilizations actually happened and the DA has now put a kibosh on the practice. But these cases are part of a larger picture of how ugly things are getting in Tennessee, where women’s reproductive capacities are becoming increasingly criminalized. Last July, the state passed a law making it a crime to give birth to a baby who is “addicted to or harmed by” the mother’s illegal drug use. Before that, creative prosecutors had argued that taking drugs while pregnant amounted to assault. While no one thinks that pregnant women should be using drugs, the gruesome reality here is that the act of giving birth triggers prosecution. The Nashville DA did the right thing, but under the state’s new law, women in Tennessee are still in real danger of being imprisoned for giving birth under the wrong circumstances.