Coerced Sterilization
By Chris Widmer, Vol. 21 Student Writer

On February 8, 2018, a U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Oklahoma decided that 18 U.S.C. § 3553 allowed him to consider the fact that Summer Thyme Creel had undergone a sterilization procedure at his suggestion when deciding her sentence. Ms. Creel pled guilty to passing a counterfeit check in 2017 and had an extensive history of drug use. In addition, Ms. Creel had seven children out of wedlock and the record at trial indicated that she had used drugs while pregnant. In June of 2017, Judge Stephen Friot suggested that if, and only if, Ms. Creel freely decided to undergo a sterilization procedure, he would consider it when deciding her sentence.[1] The prosecution raised an objection based on the idea that Ms. Creel has a constitutional right to procreate; however, the judge dismissed the objection because the current precedent only addresses forced sterilization, while in this case the ultimate decision to undergo the sterilization treatment was Ms. Creel’s alone to make.[2]

This kind of judicial coercion sets a dangerous precedent that should not be followed in the future. A judge that suggests sterilization as a mitigating factor to be considered at sentencing is asking the defendant to weigh her interests in procreation against her interests in freedom. Though the judge in this case had stated that not being sterilized would not weigh against the defendant, the defendant is still looking at a basic exchange of time spent in prison for the ability to procreate. It is also unclear whether a defendant’s inability to procreate independent of the sentencing would ever weigh in her favor without it having been initially suggested by the judge. Would a defendant who has gone through menopause receive a lighter sentence than one who has not? Would a defendant who has gone through a sterilization procedure before being arrested, convicted, and sentenced receive a lighter sentence than the one who goes through the procedure at the suggestion of a judge? The answers to these questions are likely to be no, which then creates unfair distinctions between defendants.

Finally, sterilization as a means of sentence reduction creates issues for both the prosecution and defense attorneys. The prosecution must contend with the fact that it may violate the defendant’s rights and cause problems down the road if the defendant changes her mind about whether she really wanted to become sterile. The defense attorney, on the other hand, must struggle with how best to advise their client. On the one hand, the client has an interest in freedom but, on the other hand, the client also has an interest in procreation. This dichotomy means that a defense attorney has no correct advice to give. Either way the attorney choose to advise the client can mean that later on the defendant may change her mind and feel she was misadvised by her counsel.

 

[1] Nolan Clay & Kyle Schwab, Woman Underwent Sterilization Procedure at Judge’s Suggestion, News OK (Feb. 7, 2018, 5:00 AM) http://newsok.com/offender-awaiting-sentencing-in-counterfeit-check-case....

[2] Nolan Clay, Oklahoma Woman Gets Shorter Sentence Because She Got Sterilized, News OK (Feb. 9, 2018, 5:00 AM) http://newsok.com/oklahoma-woman-gets-shorter-prison-sentence-because-sh....