"Nothing was said if I wanted to have more kids. The blessing to give life was bestowed upon me by The Creator and this man stole it from me. I'll never get it back. Everything I have ever done has been illegal. This is the most money I've ever had legally. But look at what it took to get it." - Survivor of California's Forced and Involuntary Sterilization Program

An Attempt at Reparations: California’s Forced or Involuntary Sterilization Program

On January 1, 2022, the State of California launched a reparations program in an attempt to respond to its history of operating the largest eugenics/sterilization program in the country. From 1909 – 1979, 20,000 people were forcibly or involuntarily sterilized in the state of California.[1] However, providing reparations in the form of monetary compensation (approximately $25,000) to survivors has been complicated as the state tries to reconcile its past. 

Invisible Survivors

Did you know? Between 1909–1979, California sterilized over 20,000 people in state mental institutions and hospitals. After 1979, it continued to sterilize people without consent in state women’s prisons. This Program provides monetary compensation (apx. $25k) to survivors who were sterilized in state-run facilities during these time periods. California Sterilization Compensation Program.

The first challenge in the program has been reaching survivors of state prisons and psychiatric hospitals/institutions. Using historical data on people sterilized under California’s eugenic law between 1909-1979, the Sterilization and Social Justice lab[2] is predicting that, as of 2021, there were 455 living survivors.  Of these survivors, 68% were women and they were, on average, 17 years old at the time of sterilization.[3]Although the program’s public outreach began in December 2022, the state of California has not implemented any type of formal notification process to individuals. Instead, survivors are expected to self-identify, and then show documentation of a sterilization. Of course, one can imagine that, assuming this documentation ever existed, it would be difficult to find at this point. In fact, no one who was in any of the nine psychiatric hospitals where sterilizations occurred has applied for compensation. According to estimates by the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab, hundreds of men and women have not even attempted to be compensated for the harm that was done to them. Further, as of January 31, 2023, only 356 applications had been received by the Forced or Involuntary Sterilization Compensation Program. Of those 356, only 61 had been approved.

Multiple Marginalization of Survivors

We also know that many of these individuals experienced multiple forms of marginalization- from ableism to racism to having been incarcerated or institutionalized. However, it is no small coincidence that the individuals most impacted by California’s forced sterilization program are also the most marginalized. The connections between the ableism and racism in how the state caused harm are real. The Sterilization laws that were passed never explicitly targeted specific racial or religious groups. Although these laws recommended sterilization based solely on disability, implicit racism was undeniably involved, as people of color were much more likely to be identified as ‘disabled.’

The explicit ableism in the legalization of sterilization was framed as “granting the medical superintendents of asylums and prisons the authority to ‘asexualize’ a patient or inmate if such action would improve his or her ‘physical, mental, or moral condition.”[4] This law was amended in 1917 to “reword the description of a diagnosis warranting surgery to a ‘mental disease which may have been inherited and is likely to be transmitted to descendants.” It also targeted inmates afflicted with “various grades of feeblemindedness” and “perversion or marked departures from normal mentality or from disease of a syphilitic nature.”[5] In 1927, the U.S Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of Virginia’s sterilization program in Buck v Bell, which ruled in favor of sterilization on behalf of the collective health of the citizenry. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in his Buck v Bell opinion: “It is better for the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubesThree generations of imbeciles are enough.”[6]

The Sterilization and Social Justice Lab estimated that 80% of survivors had been diagnosed as “feebleminded.”[7]  However, this ableist bias does not tell the whole story by itself according to Alexandra Minna Stern, Professor at UCLA and the Founder and Co-director of the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab. She explained that the ableism towards people with disabilities (or even perceived disabilities) was also the framework for the racism and homophobia that was used to determine if someone was recommended for sterilization. A disproportionate number of black and brown people were labelled as having a disability, and more so if they already had children, as a way of stopping people of color from further reproducing. 

Survivors Speak Out

In the ‘Reparations Speak Out’ webinar,[8] a few survivors of California’s forced sterilization program spoke out about their experience. For example, Moonlight went in for a routine pap smear while incarcerated in a state prison. The doctor recommended surgery after explaining that she had two growths that had the potential to turn into cancer. Moonlight woke up from surgery in a lot of pain. She later found out that she had been given a full hysterectomy. When she saw her doctor three days later, she demanded an explanation. After ensuring that the door was closed, he said, “I’m tired of you pretty girls coming in here… your children end up on welfare and us taxpayers have to pay to take care of them.” Moonlight successfully received compensation for being sterilized against her will but expressed her palpable grief on what it took for her to receive this money. “Nothing was said if I wanted to have more kids. The blessing to give life was bestowed upon me by The Creator and this man stole it from me. I’ll never get it back. Everything I have ever done has been illegal. This is the most money I’ve ever had legally. But look at what it took to get it.”

To Moonlight’s point, the forced sterilization of 20,000 people left tragedy and trauma for survivors and their families in ways that money cannot repair. While $25,000 is a start, it seems that it is just that: a start. Forced Sterilization is just one form of eugenics, but eugenic practices are not new and still continue in various forms. Any kind of eugenics, whether based on disability, race, gender, or sexuality, needs to be stopped, but we first need to empower people to speak out. Our hope is that California’s reparations program will only be the first step to lifting up the voices of the most marginalized so that we can begin to get this right. Alexandra Stern said it best when she said, “Not forgetting is an act we do in community.’ 

For more information, or to find California’s Sterilization Compensation application, go to https://victims.ca.gov/fiscp/

[1] https://dredf.org/2021/07/13/california-passes-landmark-law-to-provide-reparations-to-survivors-of-state-sponsored-forced-sterilization/

[2] A multi-institutional research team based in different disciplines, with a staff that includes undergraduate and graduate students, librarians, research fellows, digital specialists, and faculty.

[3] Stern AM, Novak NL, Lira N, O’Connor K, Harlow S, Kardia S. California’s sterilization survivors: an estimate and call for redress. American Journal of Public Health. 2017 Jan;107(1):50-4.

[4] Cited in Laughlin, Eugenical Sterilization, 17; on Hatch, see Joel Braslow, Mental Ills and Bodily Cures: Psychiatric Treatment in the First Half of the Twentieth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1449330/#r6

[6] Stern AM. Sterilized in the name of public health: race, immigration, and reproductive control in modern California. Am J Public Health. 2005 Jul;95(7):1128-38. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2004.041608. PMID: 15983269; PMCID: PMC1449330.

[7] Produced by the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab

[8] This event was hosted by Disability Rights Education and Defense FundCalifornia Coalition for Women PrisonersBelly of the Beast Film Team California Latinas for Reproductive JusticeSterilization and Social Justice Laband Back to the Basics

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