Survivors of Forced Sterilization Deserve More Than An Apology

Photo: (CC) Mark B. Schlemmer
By Amie Newman |

It’s past time for California to provide reparations to the approximately 800 survivors of compulsory sterilization who are likely alive today in the state, say a group of public health researchers, practitioners, and advocates. In 2003, California officials offered a public apology for the state-run sterilization program, calling the policy “an injustice.” That’s not enough, writes the LA Times. They published a strongly worded editorial last week that supports the public health group’s call for reparations, calling it “the last chance to make a strong statement.”

In the first half of the twentieth century, 60,000 women and men across the country were sterilized in state homes and hospitals “on the basis of eugenic laws designed to control the reproduction of people labeled mentally defective.” California played a particularly large role in the country’s shameful history, with approximately 20,000 individuals sterilized.

How were tens of thousands of women and men sterilized without proper consent over decades in this country?

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The process was legal and enjoyed a great deal of support. From 1907 to 1932, 32 U.S. states passed eugenics sterilization laws that allowed for the government to sterilize the “insane,” the “feeble-minded,” the “dependent,” and the “diseased” — all of whom were deemed incapable of regulating their own reproductive abilities. California’s law, on the books until 1979, authorized sterilization to be performed without consent. In a devastating Supreme Court case upholding the legality of compulsory sterilization, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. argued that sterilization and immunization were identical public health protections: “the principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the fallopian tubes.”

(Shockingly, that case — Buck v. Bell–is still on the books, which means forced sterilization is legal in the United States. Forced sterilization continued to be perpetrated on Native American women and in Puerto Rico into the 1970s and 1980s).

This was, to say the absolute least, misguided public health policy. In fact, the laws were rooted in racism, xenophobia, and social control and were intended to weed out those people considered “unfit” or who might produce “socially inadequate offspring.” According to an article in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), many of the women and men who were sterilized without proper consent were under 17 years old and were “considered sexual or criminal delinquents or came from families that were dependent on state aid or local charities.”

The LA Times explains,  

While the law did not single out people by race or income, people who were poor and those with Spanish surnames were disproportionately sterilized.

Carrie Buck was exactly the type of “undesirable” these laws were created to control. Buck was the plaintiff in the lawsuit that became the impetus for the landmark Supreme Court case. Carrie was born to a single mother living in poverty in Virginia. After being sent to a middle-class foster family, Buck was raped and shipped off to the Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. There she was sterilized without her consent (along with her sister, who thought she was getting an appendectomy and had no idea she had been sterilized until late in life). Though Buck was told she’d be returned to her middle-class family, who was raising her baby, the family turned her away.

Buck’s story is only one of the 60,000 women and men who were victims of “state sanctioned reproductive injustice” over a period of decades. Her story, and those of the other victims, is part of a large-scale perpetration of human rights abuses. That’s why public apologies from California state officials are simply not enough, write the public health researchers and advocates. Instead, they suggest that reproductive justice activists, public health advocates, legislators, and disability rights activists come together to push for reparations and for California to take full accountability:

Given the advanced age and declining numbers of sterilization survivors, time is of the essence for the state to seriously consider reparations. California should explore the possibility of producing a eugenic sterilization registry, locating living individuals, and offering monetary compensation.

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One Comment

  1. Martin says:

    For me it’s very important, that pro-choice movement finally admit about his crimes. Sterilization is part of contraception’s history. The darkest part. The same physicians who forced women to sterilize then fought in favor legalized abortion.
    History is a teacher of human.