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California aims to compensate victims of state-sponsored sterilization

California Sterilization Aviva 4 20 18
Between 1919 and1953, California's public homes and hospitals committed roughly 20,000 sterilizations. (Mohd Fazlin)

In 1940, when a Mexican-American woman named Iris Lopez was only 16, she was committed to a California institution and sterilized. Lopez was not alone. Between 1919 and 1953, the state’s public homes and hospitals committed about one-third of the 60,000 sterilizations performed across the United States. 

Now, California is one step closer to providing compensation to the estimated 831 living survivors—mainly women—of state-sponsored sterilization. On Tuesday, the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed Senate Bill 1190, which would create a fund for compensation and require the installation of plaques at facilities where sterilization took place.

The bill “recognizes the human right of every individual to control their own reproductive capacity,” state Sen. Nancy Skinner of Berkeley, who introduced the bill, told Rewire.News. The bill will now head to the state’s Senate Appropriations Committee, where lawmakers will consider how much money to give to survivors, likely between $25,000 and $50,000 per person.

Under California’s eugenic law, which was first passed in 1909, anyone committed to a state institution could be sterilized without their consent. Yet not all Californians were equally impacted by the legislation. Eugenics policies were premised on the presumed superiority of white people, the wealthy, and those without disabilities—and the notion that society should be protected from the reproduction of those with “degenerate” or “unfit” hereditary stock. As a result, working-class young people—especially women of color—were far more likely to be targeted for sterilization than others.  

In March, Smithsonian magazine used records found by historian Alexandra Minna Stern to identify trends in the more than 20,000 people recommended for sterilization in California between 1919 and 1953. Latino men were 23 percent more likely to be sterilized than non-Latino men, according to the magazine, while Latinas were sterilized at 59 percent higher rates than non-Latinas. The state’s eugenics law was finally repealed in 1979.

California may have instituted the country’s most aggressive eugenics program, yet it was hardly alone in the practice. Over the course of the 20th century, federally funded sterilization programs took place in 32 states across the country. In the South, African-Americans were often sterilized against their will. Between 1929 and 1974, North Carolina sterilized 7,600 people, 40 percent of whom were non-white. Girls as young as nine underwent the procedure.

Native-American women were also routinely forced to undergo sterilization procedures. Independent researcher Connie Pinkerton-Uri estimates that in the 1970s, about a quarter of Native women were sterilized without their consent. The researcher also found that the Indian Heath Service “singled out full-blooded Indian women for sterilization procedures.” 

The California legislature is not the first to consider a law to compensate victims of sterilization. North Carolina passed such a law in 2013, as did Virginia in 2015. In 2016, President Barack Obama signed a bill into law protecting sterilization victims from facing cutbacks in federal benefits as a result of receiving compensation.

Perhaps most surprising is that coerced sterilization programs are not a thing of the past. In 2014, the California state auditor found that 39 female prisoners in the state had been subject to tubal litigations without lawful consent, during fiscal years 2005-06 and 2012-13. Former prisoners and prisoner rights advocates have said that medical staff coerced women into receiving the procedure. Of the 144 tubal litigations reviewed by the auditors, the vast majority had been done to women of color, including 50 white women, 53 Latino women, 35 black women, and six classified as “other.”

“Based upon the auditor’s report, the problem is far more systemic,” said Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson at the time. “We now have clear proof that the prison environment is an environment where consent simply cannot be obtained in a responsible, reliable manner for these procedures.”

So while past victims of forced sterilization may soon receive compensation, currently, the invasive practice continues behind bars.

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