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Thousands Were Sterilized Under California’s Eugenics Law. Now Survivors Could Get Reparations.

Nicole Knight

"As reproductive justice advocates, we recognize the insidious impact state-sponsored policies have on the dignity and rights of poor women of color who are often stripped of their ability to form the families they want."

When Marsha was categorized because of her IQ score of 56 as a “low moron,” the Sonoma State Home in California in 1926 suggested sterilization to stop her from having children.

The field of eugenics during that era was considered scientific. A 1909 California eugenics law permitted forced sterilizations of women and men whose ability to reproduce was deemed a public health threat, as University of Michigan Professor Alexandra Minna Stern and her co-authors described last year in the American Journal of Public Health. Eugenics laws in 32 states empowered government officials and medical professionals to sterilize those considered “unfit” to reproduce.

California’s state homes and hospitals carried out one-third of the 60,000 sterilizations performed across the United States, Stern recounted. Among the chief targets were Latinas. Now California lawmakers are poised to make amends, following the examples set by legislators in North Carolina and Virginia, with legislation to pay reparations to the remaining few hundred survivors of eugenics.

California repealed its eugenics law in 1979, and state leaders have apologized for the state’s practices over the years. Even so, a recent state audit acknowledged that forced sterilization, although now illegal, continues. California female inmates were sterilized illegally as recently as 2013, auditors reported.

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“The more we can have public support behind this, the less likely it is for sterilizations to continue going forward, because we know they are still continuing today,” said attorney Carly A. Myers with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, a bill co-sponsor.

SB 1190, introduced by state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), would create a fund to compensate the living survivors of state-sponsored sterilization that occurred between 1909 and 1979. The bill cleared a state senate committee Tuesday in a unanimous vote.

The legislation “recognizes the human right of every individual to control their own reproductive capacity,” Myers told Rewire.News.

The measure now heads to the state Senate Appropriations Committee, where lawmakers will likely consider the amount of compensation due to survivors. Myers said the aim is to provide around $25,000 to $50,000 per person, but those estimates are still subject to appropriation.  

The bill aims to memorialize the grim chapter of the state’s history of eugenics.

“Which of course is recognized very much today as a human rights abuse,” Myers said. The legislation requires the installation of markers at facilities where sterilizations took place and establishes a traveling exhibit to inform the public about eugenics.

The bill calls for outreach to find the estimated 831 survivors who are alive, according to a committee analysis. Myers said they expect perhaps one-quarter of those people to come forward.

Laura Jiménez, executive director of California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, a bill co-sponsor, described the legislation as the first step to remedy “the violence inflicted on these survivors.”

“The legacy of California’s eugenics laws is well-known and their repercussion continues to be felt,” she said in a statement. “As reproductive justice advocates, we recognize the insidious impact state-sponsored policies have on the dignity and rights of poor women of color who are often stripped of their ability to form the families they want.”

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