West Virginia state senator proposes coerced sterilization to curb opioid epidemic

Last week, as Mineral County residents gathered to voice their top concerns for the upcoming West Virginia legislative session, Senator Randy Smith announced that he would be co-sponsoring a bill that would prevent drug users from having children. If adopted, the bill would give drug users facing criminal charges the option of sterilization in exchange for a lighter sentence. 

“If you want to lessen your prison sentence, if you’re a man, you can get a vasectomy so you can’t produce anymore,” Smith said. “If you’re a woman, then you get your tubes tied, so you don’t bring any more drug babies into the system.”

Smith’s proposal, a modern-day eugenics policy and a violation of reproductive rights, harkens back to the history of government-endorsed eugenics in the United States against Black, Puerto Rican and other oppressed women. It also ignores the true reality of the opioid epidemic and its roots in the capitalist drive for profit.

West Virginia’s opioid epidemic

First introduced in 1996, OxyContin prescriptions skyrocketed among working-class communities in the United States. With an aggressive marketing campaign and false advertising as a non-addictive substance, Purdue Pharma targeted Appalachia and West Virginia specifically due to its high level of workplace injuries. 

Over the past two decades, Purdue Pharma and other drug manufacturers have raked in billions of dollars while working-class communities are left to deal with the consequences.

Since 1999, nearly one million people in the United Stares have died as a result of a drug overdose — with 85% of overdoses attributed to opioids. In 2021 alone, the CDC reported 1,417 fatal overdoses in West Virginia with 1,201 due to opioids — a number that has tripled over the past decade. 

Solutions beyond capitalism

Smith’s comments are not only disgusting, but indicative of a system that would rather force sterilization than invest appropriate resources toward addressing the root issues facing working-class people.

Unfortunately, Smith is not the only West Virginia politician pushing this false narrative that individuals are to blame for the opioid crisis. Last year, Senator Joe Manchin opposed extending the Child Tax Credit, driving 50,000 children in the state deeper into poverty, because he alleged that parents would use the money to buy drugs.

Capitalism’s solution to the opioid epidemic is to place the burden on individuals rather than the drug manufacturers who created the crisis in the first place. Capitalism’s solution is to funnel more money to the police and the carceral system in an attempt to eradicate drug users rather than the conditions which lead to substance abuse. 

Drug addiction is a complex phenomenon that has all too often been cast as a moral deficiency or lack of willpower on the part of the addict. It has been managed by capitalist society as a criminal justice problem. Today, the concept that drug addiction is a medical issue that should be addressed with appropriate, coordinated public health measures is gaining ground though still not universally accepted. In part, this may well be because the criminalization of drug users is a way of siphoning off excess portions of the working class into the prison-industrial complex. Capitalism does not work to comprehensively solve the problem of addiction among workers, as addiction itself, as well as its criminalization, serve to divert and tamp down the class struggle

In order to adequately address the opioid epidemic in West Virginia and beyond, a new system is needed — socialism — where poverty is eliminated, housing is a human right, and medical care is for the people, not for profit. 

Sen. Randy Smith’s office can be contacted at (304) 357-7995 or [email protected].

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