As many as 20,000 people were sterilized in California under eugenics laws that remained on the books until 1979. Now, researchers are calling for reparations for the remaining survivors.
By Kate Wheeling
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Growing up in California, Alexandra Minna Stern learned the names of the state’s mental institutions from a young age. The schoolyard taunt for oddballs was a threat of a trip to Napa — where one of California’s many mental hospitals was located. Throughout the 20th century, those institutions made aggressive use of sterilization laws on patients. Stern, now a professor at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, literally wrote the book in 2005 on California’s zealous practice of sterilization. And now, in a new study, she’s used recently rediscovered records to estimate how many of those patients might still be alive today: as many as 831 people.
The practice of sterilization in mental institutions was a product of the “science” of eugenics. In the early 20th century, eugenicists held a Mendelian view of genetics — traits were dominant or recessive, but inherited in full when they were passed on. The idea was that the best way to rid society of things like alcoholism, feeblemindedness, or sexual deviance was to prevent degenerates from procreating. In 1907, Indiana passed the first eugenic sterilization law, which allowed medical officials to sterilize inmates in the name of public health. By 1937, 32 states had followed suit, including California in 1909. By the time the state’s law was repealed in 1979, California institutions had performed nearly 20,000 sterilizations — roughly one-third of all sterilizations nationwide.
“Sterilization was being used as something to not just control for genetic inheritance, but as a punitive device for people who were likely to be seen as unfit parents.”
“When I wrote that book, we knew these 20,000 sterilizations had occurred, but I didn’t know anything about the demographic patterns. I didn’t know who these people were,” Stern says. She wanted to learn more about the lives of the patients subjected to sterilizations, so she turned to the institutions that had carried out the procedures. “I found that these institutions for the most part were as sealed off as the institutions were in their day — during the period when the sterilizations occurred in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s,” she says.
In 2007, Stern discovered 19 microfilm reels at what was then the Department of Mental Health in Sacramento, which contained 50,000 individual documents and 19,995 sterilization recommendations. It took several years to get the funding and the team together to compile the records into a database Stern and her colleagues could analyze, but they are finally beginning to paint a picture of California’s sterilization patients. The researchers believe that most of the survivors were sterilized in the late 1940s, when they were 17 years old or younger, and would be nearing 90 years old today.
By the time most of the likely survivors were sterilized, eugenics was widely considered to be a bunk science. “Eugenic theories and genetic theories were in sync from 1900 to about 1930, then human genetics starts to take off and move along its own path,” Stern says. “What’s really kind of interesting to think about is that, even once the science [of eugenics] is disproved, the sterilizations continue, which suggests they’re serving a variety of other functions.”
“When we think about what was going on in the 1940s [in California], sterilization was being used as something to not just control for genetic inheritance, but as a punitive device for people who were likely to be seen as unfit parents, or for sexual control of LGBT people,” Stern says. There was also a strong racial component; Latino patients were disproportionately sterilized, as were ethnic whites from countries like Italy and Portugal. That’s not to say every institutional superintendent had eugenics in mind: Some truly believed sterilization had therapeutic value, and others were simply following established protocols.
Patients in California who didn’t want to be sterilized had very little recourse — doctors didn’t need consent. “Even if the parents refused or the patients refused, the state had granted itself authority in the law to carry out that sterilization in any case,” Stern says. While the records indicate that the state did at least seek consent for the recommended sterilizations, historians question the circumstances around which patients gave their consent. Often, for example, consent to sterilization was a requirement for release.
In 2003, California officials apologized for the injustice done by the state’s sterilization program (though that did not prevent a 2013 scandal in which the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that, as late as 2010, potentially hundreds of unauthorized sterilizations took place in California prisons). The study authors argue it’s time for the state to provide redress to the remaining survivors, as other states have done. North Carolina and Virginia, for example, both created agencies to sift through claims and dole out monetary compensation of up to $25,000 to verified survivors.
“Given the advanced age and declining numbers of sterilization survivors,” Stern and her co-authors write, “time is of the essence for the state to seriously consider reparations.”