California Sterilized More People Than Any U.S. State But Has Yet to Compensate Victims

What's taking the progressive state so long to right its historical wrongs?
by | August 7, 2017
Lela Dunston, right, is a victim of sterilization in North Carolina. (AP/Karen Tam)

Last month, headlines about a judge in Tennessee who offers criminals reduced sentences if they agree to be get vasectomies or take long-term birth control shocked the nation. The scrutiny didn't elicit any remorse from the judge, who argues sterilization can combat the rise of drug-addicted newborns. But it did cause the health department to effectively end the program.

The news was a flashback to America's long history of forced eugenic sterilizations.

In the 20th century, state governments deemed 60,000 Americans -- mostly prisoners, the mentally ill and poor people -- unfit to reproduce and forced them to undergo mandatory sterilization. Almost half of the controversial medical procedures occurred in just three states: California, North Carolina and Virginia.

North Carolina and Virginia have since passed laws to compensate the surviving victims of their eugenics programs, but the same can't be said of California, which forcibly or coercively sterilized more people than any other U.S. state. From the time the state’s eugenics law was passed in 1909 to the day it was repealed 70 years later, California sterilized about 20,000 people.

In 2003, former California Gov. Gray Davis issued a formal apology to victims of forced sterilization, saying "it was a sad and regrettable chapter ... one that must never be repeated." Yet a decade later, the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that California had been sterilizing prisoners without proper consent as recently as 2010 -- some of whom claimed to be coerced into it by prison staffers.

One lawmaker in the state wants to finally make amends.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia plans to introduce a reparations bill in 2018 that would likely provide victims with somewhere between $20,000 and $25,000, comparable to what North Carolina and Virginia respectively offered. The reparations, however, would not be extended to the women who were sterilized in state prisons as a punitive measure.

Garcia (one of only 10 Latina members of the California Assembly) felt drawn to the issue immediately, especially when she learned that Latina women made up a disproportionate number of the victims, suffering this fate at 2.65 times the rate of other women. To her surprise, one of the institutions that performed these surgeries was located in Norwalk, a city in her district.

“I wanted to show my neighbors that this happened in our own backyard,” says Garcia. “This isn’t far-fetched or far away.”

If the bill is passed quickly, as many as 600 victims of the sterilization program could still be living, according to Alexandra Minna Stern, a historian and researcher at the University of Michigan who has written extensively about the state’s history of sterilization. (Stern is working with Garcia and others to draft the legislation.)

But victims could be difficult to find.

Most of them are likely approaching their late 80s, and since Davis’ apology in 2003, only one victim --a man living out of his car -- has ever come forward. For that reason, Stern says, a successful bill in California must allocate resources to locating living victims.

Stern has been pressing for reparations from the state since 2007, when she stumbled upon sterilization recommendation forms for nearly 20,000 patients tucked away in a filing cabinet in the state's mental health department. All of the patients listed were sterilized in California state hospitals from 1919 to 1952, some as young as 7 years old. The records provided proof.

So what's taken California -- arguably the most progressive state in the nation -- so long to right its historical wrongs?

One reason could be the seeming absence of any victims in California willing or able to come forward. In North Carolina and Virginia, Stern says dozens of victims began drumming up media attention, creating political pressure for a bill.

What’s more, most of California’s sterilizations happened earlier in the century, dropping off significantly in the 1950s. In North Carolina, sterilizations actually increased during this period, which means the number of living victims in that state is rather large.

Garcia, for her part, speculates that it has to do with political representation.

“I think it partly has to do with the demographics of our legislature. This is an issue that has affected women and women of color,” she says. “We legislate from experience. So when we don’t have diversity in the legislature, there’s a real limitation in what we’re legislating on.”

Stern says she's happy Garcia and other legislators are finally working on this bill, and she believes the money can make a great deal of difference for victims, many of whom are likely living in poverty.

But the bill won't help all sterilization victims.

“What we’re talking about [with this bill] is officially recorded sterilization, people that are on a list and all their names can be found,” says Stern. “But what that means is that people who can’t check all those boxes might not qualify for compensation. What about people who might have been sterilized at the same clinic by the same doctor, but it wasn’t ordered by the sterilization board?”

This has already proven to be a problem in North Carolina, where many victims don't qualify for reparations because they were sterilized by the order of local judges who didn't receive approval from the State Eugenics Board.

Garcia is aware of the bill's shortcomings. But to her, some progress is better than none.

“This [bill] definitely doesn’t get justice for everyone out there,” says Garcia. “It’s about elevating the discussion and then eventually building on it.”