Public Safety & Justice

States Confront Past and Present Forced Sterilization

States -- including California, where female prisoners were involuntarily sterilized as late as 2013 -- are figuring out how to compensate the victims.
by | September 2014
Female inmates, some with their children, in the recreation area of a state prison. MCT/Mike Siegel

Forced sterilization by the government sounds like a ghastly practice that ought to be safely locked away in the distant past. But for some states, it’s an issue that’s very much in the present.

Take California. When the state formally apologized in 2003 for its history of forcing sterilization on prisoners and the mentally ill, most people thought the practice had died out. But this past June, a state auditor’s report found that 39 female inmates had received tubal ligations without lawful consent between 2005 and 2013.

California prison regulations already forbid forced tubal ligations, vasectomies and any other procedure that isn’t medically necessary. A bill submitted months before the audit expressly bans the practice, requires a second physician to evaluate whether sterilization is necessary, strengthens patient counseling about the procedure and toughens reporting requirements from prison medical facilities. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill Thursday.

The bill’s lead sponsor, state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, says the measure is unequivocally clear. “We’ve spelled it out in no uncertain terms.” Some, however, say even that legislation wouldn’t do enough to right California’s wrongs.

Involuntary sterilization gained traction in the U.S. in the early 1900s, along with the eugenics movement. Eventually 33 states had sterilization laws on the books before a wave of repeals beginning in the 1970s. It’s estimated that California sterilized 20,000 people from 1909 to 1963, accounting for about a third of all procedures performed in the U.S. Another state with one of the nation’s highest sterilization numbers was North Carolina, which in 2013 became the first to provide reparations. The state set aside $10 million for claims from its estimated 1,800 still-living sterilization victims.

Critics are wondering why California can’t do the same. “I think what North Carolina did by stepping up and making dollars available to compensate men and women who were sterilized -- that’s a good model,” says Areva Martin, a California civil rights attorney. A 2013 Santa Clara Law Review paper estimated that some 500 people sterilized in California were still alive in 2012.

Providing reparations costs money, of course, and tracking down victims can be a challenge. North Carolina’s effort took more than a decade and was mostly due to the persistence of one lawmaker who rarely let a session go by without a push and lots of media coverage of living victims. In Virginia, the state with the second-highest sterilization count, a bipartisan reparations bill failed to make it out of committee last year.

But it could become politically feasible if citizens decide it’s an issue worth focusing on, says Paul Lombardo, a eugenics scholar and law professor at Georgia State University. “Politicians are politicians,” he says. “Regardless of what party they’re in, when they realize there’s a sentiment out there, they do something.”

*This story has been updated to reflect the signing of the California bill.

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