School Board member Nancy Cook’s recent comment about possibly sterilizing unfit mothers wasn’t the first uncomfortably fumbling stab at the issue by a Charleston official — it wasn’t even the second.
The rhetoric starts with a woman who has babies out of carelessness or to get a bigger welfare check. The children are then neglected until, at a young age, they turn to a life of crime or they start having unwanted babies of their own. This kind of assumption has stigmatized welfare mothers and their children. In conversations on failing schools, like the talk Cook got into earlier this month on the radio, much of the blame is often laid at the feet of the no-good parent who is either disinterested in their children’s education or actively sabotaging it.
These rants typically hover around general disgust, rarely reaching actual suggestions to penalize unfit parents. But twice in less than two years, Charleston officials have alluded to the practice of sterilizing those who they believe shouldn’t be having babies. And when it’s too late — when the seed has already been sown — officials have sought out other avenues to penalize these mothers, including the highly publicized arrests of drug-addicted mothers at the Medical University of South Carolina in the ’90s.
Struggling schools and troubled students have been a frequent topic on WTMA’s The Morning Buzz with Richard Todd, with the subject often making its way around to the role the parents play in shaping this mess. When Cook appeared on the show April 3, she probably felt a little too at home as she focused her ire on the responsibility of the parents.
“We’re not standing up as people and saying that we’ve had enough of that,” she said. “We’re not paying for another baby, maybe one baby, but after that, we’re taking the baby. And maybe you get sterilized. I know that sounds kind of extreme and radical, but we’re in times where — think about America. When is it OK for America not to be No. 1? When did we get out of that?”
The NAACP was quick to condemn Cook’s comments, calling for an apology or her resignation. Teen pregnancy counselors took the opportunity to say the real issue is warning students about the dangers of unprotected sex. When asked last week to clarify her comments, Cook provided a statement that highlighted her years of service and seemed to suggest the words didn’t even come from her mouth.
“We need to discuss this as an issue of personal responsibility and accountability, not government intervention,” she said. “Clearly, to suggest that I would be for such a radical idea would be against my morals, beliefs, and life work.”
Fortunately for Cook, she’s not alone. It was about 18 months ago that Charleston was in the national spotlight for similar comments made by City Councilman Larry Shirley after a string of robberies by local students.
“What we’ve got is a failure in society, whether it’s in Mount Pleasant with yuppie parents or whether it’s on the East Side with poor crackhead parents,” Shirley said. “We pick up stray animals and spay them. These mothers need to be spayed if they can’t take care of theirs … Once you have a child and it’s running the streets, to let them continue to have children is totally unacceptable.”
Those comments brought 63 interviews over 10 days, including a spot on British television. Shirley apologized, saying he was just trying to start a dialogue and that he knew we couldn’t sterilize people.
But we can sterilize people. We have sterilized people. South Carolina had a law on the books allowing sterilization until 1985. Between the 1940s and the ’60s, the state sterilized at least 259 prisoners and mental patients, most of them women and blacks, for being mentally ill or mentally deficient. The state’s numbers were far less than neighboring North Carolina or Virginia and pale to the estimated 60,000 who were sterilized nationally in the mid-20th century. Bioethics researchers also have suggested more than a passing link between America’s drive to sterilize the unfit and Adolf Hitler’s parallel drive for ethnic purity.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes defended the practice of sterilization by suggesting there was an inevitable pattern that needed to be stopped. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” he wrote in support of Virginia’s sterilization law.
It’s not a search for purity that has led to the recent allusions to sterilization — it’s punishment. The comments by Cook and Shirley were about troubled children who, they suggested, must have come from troubled homes. And so, with an evident lack of sensible solutions, these officials offer up “extreme and radical” options. No one has the easy answer — but it’s clear that sterilization isn’t it. Even now, Shirley comes to the same general solution most would offer. “I really think the solution to the problem is people taking care of themselves and not having too many children,” he says. “This is an issue of parenting skills and where we’re going to be in 10 or 15 years.”
Lawyers facing these negligent mothers in the trenches have been struggling with finding their own moral and legal solutions for decades.
In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Medical University of South Carolina did not have the right to silently test pregnant mothers for drug use and then turn those women over to the police immediately following delivery. The case for the testing had been argued by local attorney Charlie Condon, then the state’s attorney general, who said it was about protecting the fetus.
“I was doing what I thought was right,” Condon told The State when reflecting on the case last year. “To me, it’s been personally rewarding to be standing up for protecting the unborn.”
A few years ago, one private national group was offering drug addicts $200 if they agreed to be sterilized. In early 2007, Aiken County Solicitor Barbara Morgan began offering plea deals to mothers who admitted to using drugs while pregnant that would let them avoid jail time if they agreed to go on birth control.
“Most of them don’t want to hurt a baby,” Morgan told The Augusta Chronicle. But, “given a choice between drugs and a baby, the drugs always trump.”
The fact that these mothers are criminals makes it easier to seek out concessions. But just being an overwhelmed or absent parent makes things more complicated.
This summer, two mothers will get their day in front of a jury after having been told to leave a downtown housing development because their kids got in trouble with the law.
As for Nancy Cook, a candidate for the Republican nomination for County Council District 3, she likely hasn’t heard the last questions on her sterilization remark. Scandals like this are a lot like having babies: the responsibility doesn’t end once the baby’s born — that’s just the beginning.