California sets aside $7.5 million in reparations to victims of forced sterilization

California follows Virginia and North Carolina as the third state to compensate victims of the eugenics forced sterilization movement that peaked in the 1930s, setting aside $7.5 million in reparations to victims. 

forced sterilization

Among one of the first states to begin forcibly sterilizing people in the early 1900s, California sterilized more than 20,000 people before its law was repealed in 1979. (Photo by Martha Dominguez de Gouveia on Unsplash)

The nonprofit, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice (CLRJ) has been a key leader in pushing for reparations. As an organization, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice is committed to honoring the experiences of Latinas/xs to uphold their dignity, bodies, sexuality, and families. They build Latinas’/xs’ power and cultivate leadership through community education, policy advocacy, and community-informed research to achieve reproductive justice.

“We must address and face our horrific history,” said Lorena Garcia Zermeño, policy and communications coordinator for the advocacy group California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, in a statement to the Associated Press. “This isn’t something that just happened in the past.”

Indeed, the history of forced sterilization in California is not as far in the past as many may think. Among one of the first states to begin forcibly sterilizing people in the early 1900s, California sterilized more than 20,000 people before its law was repealed in 1979. 

However, the Center for Investigative Reporting exposed in 2013 that 144 women in prison were coerced by the state into sterilization procedures between 2005 and 2013. 

California’s proposal for reparations to victims of forced sterilization will also include these women since most of these incarcerated individuals were not given proper counsel, offered alternative treatments, or able to give informed consent to these procedures. 

 

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Facing a horrific chapter in our country’s reproductive healthcare history 

The forced sterilization of thousands by the state cannot be forgotten. It is a horrific chapter in our country’s reproductive healthcare history that needs to be acknowledged. California’s eugenics law enacted in 1909 was one of the first in the United States and it was not the only. Other states, such as Indiana and Washington soon followed and over two dozen states would pass similar laws in the subsequent years.

The law allowed medical officials to order the forced sterilization of people they deemed “feebleminded” or otherwise unfit to have children. Most of these individuals were poor, disabled,  or suffered from untreated psychiatric disorders and a disproportionate number were people of color. They all ranged in age with some as young as 13. Those who supported the eugenics law believed they were improving society by preventing “undesirables” from having children, hoping that forced sterilization would lead to fewer “defective” residents in state care. 

These procedures lasted for seven decades with over 20,000 victims and it’s scale and efficiency was noticed abroad, inspiring similar practices in Nazi Germany

“The promise of eugenics at the very earliest is: ‘We could do away with all the state institutions — prisons, hospitals, asylums, orphanages,'” Paul Lombardo, a law professor at Georgia State University and an expert on the eugenics movement told the Associated Press. “People who were in them just wouldn’t be born after a while if you sterilized all of their parents.”

144 women in prison were coerced by the state into sterilization procedures between 2005 and 2013. (Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash)

This chapter of forced sterilization in California supposedly ended in 1979 with the repeal of the eugenics law. However, we now know sterilizations continued in California prisons appearing to date in 1999 when the state changed its policy for unknown reasons to include “tubal ligation” as part of inmates’ medical care. These coerced procedures continued into the next decade, until 2014 when a state law passed banning sterilization for the purpose of birth control at state prisons and local jails. Facilities are now required to report any “medically necessary” sterilization procedures–which are still allowed under the new law–such as removing cancer or other life-threatening conditions. 

Remembering the victims 

The $7.5 million in reparation to the victims of forced sterilization in the state of California is a good first step in making amends. Under the proposed plan, of the $7.5 million, more than $4 million will go toward the actual payouts. Each survivor is expected to receive about $25,000. 

“I don’t know if it is justice. Money doesn’t pay for what happened to them. But it’s great to know that this is being recognized,” said Stacy Cordova, the niece of Mary Franco, a victim who was sterilized in 1934 when she was just 13 years old. 

Relatives like Stacy are not eligible for the payments, only direct victims. However she says, “For me, this is not about the money. This is about the memory.”

Remembering her aunt, she recalls how Mary Franco loved children and always wanted a family. Paperwork described her as “feeble minded” because of “sexual deviance,” according to Stacy, who has researched her case. Stacy said her aunt was actually molested by a neighbor and her family put Mary in an institution to protect the family’s reputation. She, unfortunately lived a lonely life in a Mexican culture that revered big families, Stacy said.

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Of the remaining funds, $1 million will go toward paying for plaques and markers honoring victims. The remainder of the funds–approximately $2 million will cover an extensive outreach campaign to locate living victims which advocates predict will be difficult. Of the victims, only a few hundred are believed to still be alive. Including the inmates who were most recently sterilized, there are about 600 estimated individuals eligible for reparations. 

However, advocates predict only about 25% of eligible people will ultimately apply for reparations and be paid. The $2 million will be used by California’s Victim Compensation Board to run the program and advertising to locate victims in addition to poring through state records.

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