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While Doing Time in a California Prison, I Was Given a Hysterectomy Without My Consent

Moonlight Pulido believed she was having surgery to remove growths from her uterus. In a brutal bait-and-switch, she was sterilized.

An illustration shows a portrait of an older Indigenous woman, wearing a red and white tribal headband, beaded necklaces and shirt. Clouds and a purple moon are in the background.

In the early 2000s, a California prison doctor urged Moonlight Pulido to undergo surgery to remove potentially cancerous growths from her uterus. Instead, she was given a hysterectomy without her knowledge.

After she was paroled, Pulido applied for and received a reparations payment from California’s Forced or Involuntary Sterilization Compensation Program. That outcome was rare: Of the 320 applicants who have claimed to be survivors of state-sponsored eugenics or their descendants, only 51 have been approved, according to the most recent report on the program. Like many others, Pulido lacked the documentation to prove her story. The 58-year-old says she hasn’t even seen the records that the California’s Victim Compensation Board pulled to process her claim.

The state’s compensation program covers two groups: People who were living in state-run institutions such as hospitals and homes from 1909 to 1979, and those serving time in state correctional facilities after 1979. The application period ends on December 31. For more information, visit www.victims.ca.gov/fiscp.

If you’d like to tell your own story about abortion, pregnancy and reproductive rights in prison or jail, send us an email at postroe@themarshallproject.org or leave a voicemail at 212-803-5207.

In 2005, when I was eight years into a life sentence at Valley State Prison, a prison doctor named James Heinrich informed me that my annual Pap test had shown two potentially cancerous growths on my uterus. My thoughts immediately went to my son Michael, who had been diagnosed with cancer at age 12.

Heinrich asked if I wanted surgery to have the growths removed. Since I knew that treatments and miracles were unlikely for me in prison, I saw this as a necessity. I didn’t know to ask for a second opinion or if there was such a thing for women in my facility.

About a week and a half later, I was transported to Madera Community Hospital, which has since been closed. I was prepped for surgery, wearing a gown and hooked up to an IV, when medical staff presented me with paperwork to sign. They put it on a little table next to me and handed me the pen. The nurse was waiting with the anesthesia syringe.

It didn’t occur to me in the moment to sit there and read the whole document. I thought I was getting a lifesaving procedure, so I just signed the papers. To this day, I don’t know exactly what they said.

When I woke up, I was lying in the hospital bed, coated in sweat. At first, I thought it was just my body reacting to the surgery, or maybe the anesthesia. But it continued for days, even after I’d left the hospital and returned to prison.

When I went back to medical to have my dressing changed, I asked the nurse about it. She took a look at my file and told me that I’d had a full hysterectomy. I remember thinking, No, she must be mistaken. She asked for my name to confirm with the medical records, then assured me that I, DeAnna Henderson, as I was still called at the time, had been sterilized.

I didn’t know how to react. I just left and didn’t say anything to anyone. I was embarrassed. I felt hollow, like less than myself. Like something fundamental had been taken from me, something that was important and grounded me to Mother Earth.

Two or three days later, I walked back into the doctor’s office ready to demand answers. I sat down and asked quietly, “What did you do to me?” I remember Heinrich closing the door and telling me that he was tired of pretty, non-White girls getting locked up, getting pregnant, having children, and getting locked up again. “You have these kids, and taxpayers have to take care of them,” I recall him saying. Once again, I just got up and left. I went back to my unit, stunned into silence. I felt entirely alone, like I couldn’t ask for help or do anything about it.

Last January, once I was paroled, I started working with California Coalition for Women Prisoners, an organization that is helping people like me get reparations from the state of California. I saw a list of others who had been sterilized and recognized the names of women I’d shared a prison bunk with, lived alongside and slept underneath.

Soon after my release, I filled out the application to the California Victim Compensation Board by hand and sent it in the mail. The process was so overwhelming. I just tried to center myself and just take each question one at a time.

Three weeks later, they wrote me back to say that my application was being processed. I found out that I was approved, and that they’d be issuing a check. I cried when I got that $15,000. It made it all feel real and like it had finally been acknowledged. But that check doesn’t change what happened to me and all of those other women. This doctor took so much from us. He stole our ability to create and give life, and he played God by deciding who was suitable to have children.

California Correctional Health Care Services stated in an email that it is not able to comment on the details of Pulido’s experience. Madera Community Hospital closed this year and did not keep records past 2016. The Marshall Project was unable to reach James Heinrich, who has reportedly retired from practicing medicine. In response to several calls and a follow-up email, a member of the law firm of Ronald B. Bass, who represented Heinrich in 2014, said, “We’re not going to provide any information at this time.”

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Carla Canning Email is an engagement journalist and former Tow audience engagement fellow at The Marshall Project. At the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, she created a website guide for people visiting loved ones incarcerated in New York State prisons. She recently traded in her lifelong New Yorker status for sunny Southern California.