NASHVILLE — Nashville prosecutors have made sterilization of women part of plea negotiations at least four times in the past five years, and the district attorney has banned his staff from using the invasive surgery as a bargaining chip after the latest case.
In the most recent case, first reported by The Tennessean, a woman with a 20-year history of mental illness had been charged with neglect after her 5-day-old baby died mysteriously. Her defense attorney says the prosecutor assigned to the case wouldn’t go forward with a plea deal to keep the woman out of prison unless she had the surgery.
Defense attorneys say there have been at least three similar cases in the past five years, suggesting the practice may not be as rare as people think and may happen more often outside the public view and without the blessing of a court.
Sterilization coerced by the legal system evokes a dark time in America, when minorities, the poor, and those deemed mentally unfit or ‘‘deficient’’ were forced to undergo medical procedures that prevented them from having children.
‘‘The history of sterilization in this country is that it is applied to the most despised people — criminals and the people we’re most afraid of, the mentally ill — and the one thing that these two groups usually share is that they are the most poor. That is what we’ve done in the past, and that’s a good reason not to do it now,’’ said Paul Lombardo, a law professor and historian who teaches at Georgia State University.
Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk agrees. A former defense attorney who took over the office in September, he recently ordered lawyers in his office not to seek sterilization by defendants. He said he hadn’t heard of it happening before but didn’t ask.
Funk said people could be ordered to stay away from children, and the state wouldn’t have to resort to such invasive measures.
‘‘The bottom line is the government can’t be ordering a forced sterilization,’’ Funk said.
However, such deals do happen.
In West Virginia, a 21-year-old unmarried mother of three agreed to have her tubes tied in 2009 as part of her probation after she pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute marijuana.
And last year, a Virginia man who fathered children with several women agreed to undergo a vasectomy in exchange for less prison time in a child endangerment case.
Forced sterilization came up in a different way in California last year, when Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that banned state prisons from forcing female inmates to be sterilized.
The law was pushed through after the Center for Investigative Reporting found that nearly 150 female prisoners had been sterilized between 2006 and 2010. An audit found that the state failed to make sure the inmate’s consent was lawfully obtained in every case.
The most recent Nashville case involved Jasmine Randers, 36, who had been under court supervision for mental illness when she left her home state of Minnesota. She gave birth in West Memphis, Ark., then fled a homeless shelter to come to Nashville, said her attorney, Mary-Kathryn Harcombe.
Court records show Randers reported awakening in a motel in Nashville, where she’d slept in a bed with the baby, only to find the child unresponsive. She reportedly called a taxi two hours later and took the child to a local hospital, where the infant was pronounced dead.
There was no sign of injury, and the cause of death was undetermined.