The Most Populous State in America Has a Dark History Of Forced Sterilization


Sterilization ranks among one of the most popular forms of birth control in the United States, second to oral contraceptives, and 34% of couples worldwide use the modern method, however the irreversible procedure has been coerced upon populations by governments for several decades. 

Countries such as China and India practice the procedure frequently in attempts to curb overpopulation, but one wouldn’t expect the U.S. to participant in the prevention of women deemed unfit to bear children.

A recent University of Michigan report reveals California’s 1909 eugenic sterilization law targeted Latino populations in the 1900’s. After reviewing thousands of documents professor Alexandra Minna Stern and graduate student Natalie Lira found “ethnic and racial bias in sterilization procedures in California.” Among 32 states that had a similar law, 60,000 sterilizations were performed, and California accounted for a third of them.

What comes as a shock is that for procedures performed between 1909 and 1979 the majority were held in institutions for psychiatric and developmentally disabled patients. The rationale used to employ these methods of forced sterilization included sexual deviance and labeling individuals as “feeble-minded,” which resulted in 70% of the procedures. In addition children born out-of-wedlock or those that had IQs of 70 or lower were tied to the group.

“Many of the women sterilized in California were of Mexican origin, came from families disrupted by trans-border migratory patterns and had limited access to education.” The Latino population was disproportionately targeted because of high volumes of immigration rates during the early 1900s, and eugenicists feared they would spread diseases.

The eugenics movement is a dark period in California history, but even more so for the U.S. in general, as it has gone widely unknown. In 1979, a California state Senator, Art Torres, helped to write and pass legislation outlawing the sterilization law. The issue was relatively unheard of until California’s former Governor Gray Davis acknowledged the state’s past and issued an apology in 2003. Victims have since come forward requesting monetary compensation around the country, and brought light to the issue for a well-known case in North Carolina. The efforts in North Carolina to compensate victims ultimately failed when the state senate did not pass a budget allocating resources to the cause.

While these acts were performed "legally" throughout the 20th century, there hasn’t been significant consideration given to the moral implications the movement caused. California should step up and do the right thing beyond a lackluster apology by providing monetary compensation, and setting an example for other perpetrators. At least it would be a symbolic recognition of their wrongdoing. And with recent changes made to the California budget by Jerry Brown, it’s the most they can do.