Bioethicist Says Vasectomy Has No Place in Plea Deal

Image: A doctor draws medicine into a syringe at Johns Hopkins Hospital on June 26, 2012 in Baltimore, Md.
A doctor draws medicine into a syringe at Johns Hopkins Hospital on June 26, 2012 in Baltimore, Md.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP - Getty Images file

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Jessie Lee Herald was facing five years or more in prison after a crash in which police and prosecutors said his 3-year-old son was bloodied but not seriously hurt. But Herald cut a deal. Or more accurately, the state agreed to reduce his sentence if he would agree to be cut.

Shenandoah County assistant prosecutor Ilona White said she offered Herald, 27, of Edinburg, Virginia, the opportunity to get a drastically reduced sentence if he would agree to a vasectomy.

It may not be immediately clear what a vasectomy has to do with driving dangerously and recklessly. It shouldn’t be. There is no connection.

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What the prosecutor wanted to do in offering Herald the choice of being snipped and serving less than two years or staying intact and serving five or more was to prevent him from fathering more than the seven children he already has by six women. "He needs to be able to support the children he already has when he gets out," White said, adding that Herald and the state of Virginia both benefit from the deal.

Herald, convicted of child endangerment, hit and run, and driving on a suspended license, took the offer. It never should have been made. Linking reductions in prison or parole time to sterilization is one especially unethical idea.

Herald said “yes,” however his agreement sure looks coerced. Sit in the big house for a long stretch — or get sterilized and head home much sooner. That’s a very tough deal to turn down. Why a court or a doctor would consider this valid informed consent is beyond me.

Jessie Lee Herald, who has agreed to have a vasectomy as part of a plea deal in a child endangerment case.Shenandoah County Police via AP

Virginia has a long and horrid history of forced sterilization. In 1924 Virginia enacted the “Eugenical Sterilization Act,” Under the Act, individuals confined to state institutions “afflicted with hereditary forms of insanity that are recurrent, idiocy, imbecility, feeble-mindedness or epilepsy” could be sterilized. This was later extended to alcoholics, welfare mothers, and those deemed mentally ill. As many as 8,000 people were sterilized without their consent through the 1970s.

Worse, using traffic violations to save the state money through birth control gives a whole new meaning to activist judges. What is next? If you decide to have a child knowing there is a huge risk of costly disability and you have to appear in court will the prosecution try to keep taxes low by telling you to terminate the pregnancy? If you get busted using a stolen credit card or driving with an expired registration, will authorities take a look at your kid’s criminal record and offer sterilization as an alternative to a fine or jail time if they don’t like what they see you have created?

Against this backdrop it is hard to believe that Virginia would tolerate the reintroduction of sterilization as the price for sentence reduction.

We all know that the rich do better than the poor when it comes to the American legal system. Does anyone really think a rich banker or titan of industry or pro athlete with many kids by many women is going to be offered or accept sterilization to get a reduced penalty? It will be the poor who wind up on the end of the surgeon’s knife and no one else.

The citizens of Virginia should not put up with plea bargains that involve sterilization for reduced sentencing. To do so is the unkindest and most dangerous cut of all.