July 20, 2017
Dear Judge Benningfield,
As a reproductive health professional, I was shocked and disappointed to read about your recent ruling, which incentivizes inmates to reduce their jail time by 30 days if they accept a method of contraception (including sterilization or implants).
In your interview, you noted that you wish to assist individuals to take "personal responsibility", which I can appreciate. However, empowering people to take responsibility over their reproductive decisions should never be mixed with reproductive coercion, as this program would do. Enticing individuals to base their reproductive health and childbearing decisions on incentives like reduced jail time is coercive and unethical.
There are better ways to empower people in Tennessee to make responsible decisions about their reproductive health. Inmates should have access to voluntary contraceptive services, free of coercion, but more broadly, Tennessee should provide comprehensive sexuality education in schools, and access to affordable, acceptable contraceptive options for all who wish to use a method.
In Tennessee, 56% of all pregnancies are unintended (higher than the national average), and in 2010, unintended pregnancies in TN cost the state and federal government over $530 million.
While sexual education is mandated in Tennessee, there is no mandate that it be medically accurate, nor that it include information on contraception. Tennessee does, however, require that information on abstinence be stressed, even though abstinence-only education has not been shown to reduce or delay sex, and several studies suggest that it may increase risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
Unlike 28 other states, Tennessee does not require that insurers provide coverage of FDA-approved prescription contraceptive medications/devices, nor over-the-counter methods, extended supply methods, or male or female sterilization.
In your important role as a Judge, I hope you might consider reversing your decision on the coercive program in prisons, and instead, turning your attention to other important reproductive health issues in Tennessee which disempower people from taking personal responsibility in exercising control and personal responsibility over their reproductive health in a fully voluntary manner.
Dr. Chelsea Polis
Update: The email address provided online for Judge Benningfield does not appear to be functional; I received a bounceback message after sending. That said, I also emailed Alan Marsh, Judicial Commissioner of White Country, so hopefully the message will still be heard.