Jan. 1, 2022 marked the beginning of a $7.5 million California state program which is paying reparations to survivors of the state’s forced sterilization program that were performed between 1909 and 1979 under a state eugenics law. The California eugenics law, which spanned seven decades, allowed forced sterilization of women in hospitals, homes, or institutions if the state judged them to be “feeble-minded, sexually deviant, or undesirable.”1
The law ended up allowing government officials to target the mentally ill, the disabled, and people of color by justifying that it was a way “to improve the outcome of the human race.”1
The law was repealed in 1979 after racking up the highest number of sterilizations performed in any state—an estimated 20,000 people were involuntarily sterilized.2 The state estimates that there are approximately 600 survivors still alive today who are eligible for compensation.
California resident Mary Franco was forcibly removed from her home and institutionalized in 1934 after her parents found out she was being molested by a neighbor. Branded as “sexually deviant,” Franco’s parents did not know that by placing her in a state-run institution, they were also subjecting her to involuntary sterilization.1
Prisoners Sterilized Using State Funds Until 2013
Carly A. Myers, a staff attorney at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, says that there are still many existing survivors who may be completely unaware that they are victims of forced sterilization. Myers said:
All people were sterilized without their consent, but some were sterilized without their knowledge. 1
Despite the law’s repeal in 1979, California continued to sterilize female inmates until as recently as 2013. A state audit that took place between 2006-2010 revealed that 144 female prisoners were sterilized in that timeframe.2
One of these prisoners was Kelli Dillon who in 2001 underwent a hysterectomy but was told the surgery was to treat an ovarian cyst. An investigation from the Center for Investigative Reporting found that California used almost $150,000 in state funds to pay doctors to perform sterilizations between 1997-2013.3
Mandatory Sterilization Compared to Mandatory Vaccination as Ethical Public Health Policies
An article published in the American Journal of Public Health outlines the obvious ethical issues surrounding forced sterilization. The authors stated:
During the first half of the 20th century, eugenics was a popular ‘science’ in the United States and throughout the world that influenced many public health policies and programs.4
In 1927, at the height of the eugenics movement, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Buck vs. Bell, was decided with the famous Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. writing the opinion for the majority. The court ruled that Carrie Buck, a Virginia resident was “feebleminded” and it was in the best interest of the state to sterilize her to protect the public health. The ruling paved the way for 30 additional states to enforce similar eugenics-based sterilization laws.5
Chief Justice Holmes argued that forced sterilization and mandatory vaccinations were similar public health interventions that protected society and stated:
The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover the cutting the fallopian tubes.4
Chief Justice Holmes also argued that if the nation could call upon its best citizens to sacrifice their lives during times of war, it could also demand a “lesser” sacrifice of those who “sap the strength of society.”6
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1 Lopez N. California forcibly sterilized people for 70 years. Survivors can now get compensation. Yahoo! News Jan. 16, 2022.
2 Mizes-Tan S. For decades, California forcibly sterilized women under eugenics law. Now, state will pay survivors. CAP Radio July 20, 2021.
3 Jindia S. Belly of the beast: California’s dark history of forced sterilizations. The Guardian June 30, 2020.
4 Stern A et al. California’s Sterilization Survivors: an estimate and call for redress. American Journal of Public Health Jan. 2017.
5 Facing history and ourselves: Resource Library. The supreme court and the sterilization of Carrie Buck. 2022.
6 Burns T. One generation of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. is enough. Cato Institute June 23, 2011.