The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

California once forcibly sterilized people by the thousands. Now the victims may get reparations.

Stacy Cordova holds a framed photo of her aunt Mary Franco, a victim of California’s forced sterilization program, on July 5 in Azusa, Calif. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

A brutal chapter in American history began in 1909 with the stroke of a doctor’s pen.

California’s eugenics law, enacted that year, allowed medical officials to order the forced sterilization of people they deemed “feebleminded” or otherwise unfit to have children. Over the next seven decades, they carried out the surgeries at an industrial scale. More than 20,000 people, many of them with disabilities or psychiatric disorders, went under the knife in a campaign so efficient Germany’s Nazis took notice.

Now, more than 40 years after the law was repealed, California is on the cusp of approving financial reparations for the few surviving victims of the country’s largest mass sterilization program.

Legislation setting aside $7.5 million for the payments was included in the quarter-trillion-dollar state budget awaiting a signature from Gov. Gavin Newsom (D). A companion bill laying out how the fund would operate is awaiting a vote in the state Senate.

If approved, the reparations would represent a breakthrough for survivors of forced sterilization and bring a measure of closure to countless others whose relatives had their reproductive organs mutilated by the state. California accounts for a third of the roughly 60,000 forced sterilizations performed nationwide when eugenics laws were on the books, the most of the 32 states where such legislation was in place.

Just two other states, North Carolina and Virginia, have passed laws compensating forced sterilization victims. California’s measure would go further, extending the payouts to women who were coerced into sterilizations while incarcerated between 2006 and 2014.

“This is really significant because, first, California led the country. It’s also interesting because it combines two groups of survivors who were subject to sterilization abuse,” said Alexandra Minna Stern, a University of Michigan professor and leading scholar on the U.S. eugenics movement.

While monetary compensation can’t reverse the injustices the victims endured, Stern said, “it’s important. It’s a form of recognizing the harm that was done to people and a way of the state paying them back for that harm.”

The legislation fits in with a broader movement unfolding nationwide calling on officials to acknowledge historical injustices against marginalized groups and, in some cases, provide financial redress. Support for paying reparations to the descendants of enslaved people has grown in Congress, with lawmakers recently greenlighting a commission to study the issue for the first time. In March, the Chicago suburb of Evanston passed the nation’s first reparations program for African Americans.

Efforts to compensate forced sterilization victims in California have been in the works for years, but never have come this close to the finish line, advocates say. Budget squabbles in the state House prevented earlier bills from moving forward. It also took repeated sit-downs with lawmakers to convince some that the legislature needed to take action.

“We had to do a lot of education of legislators,” said Ena S. Valladares, a director at the advocacy group California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, a nonprofit that has been a leader in pushing for reparations.

The assembly passed the bill unanimously earlier this year. Newsom declined to comment on the legislation this week.

Of the $7.5 million earmarked for the program, more than $4 million would go toward the actual payouts, with each survivor receiving about $25,000. Another $2 million would cover outreach and implementation costs, while $1 million would pay for plaques and markers honoring the victims.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, said she was confident the bill would win final approval before the end of the legislative session.

“Unfortunately, California led the way and now it’s reversing course,” said Carrillo, a Democrat from Los Angeles. “There is something tangible about receiving something — saying, ‘This was wrong and this never should have happened.’ It’s one small piece of dignity that the state can provide.”

California was among the first states to begin forcibly sterilizing people in the early 1900s, joined by Indiana and Washington. More than two dozen others passed similar laws in the years that followed. At the time, many state medical experts favored the procedures as a way to improve society by preventing people they viewed as undesirable from having children. California health officials claimed the surgeries had a therapeutic value and would lead to fewer “defective” residents that needed state care.

Many victims were poor, had disabilities or suffered from untreated psychiatric disorders — traits that led officials to deem them unworthy of reproducing. A disproportionate number were people of color. Some had been imprisoned for petty crimes, while others were simply social outcasts. They ranged in age, with some as young as 13.

Sterilizations were often performed at state institutions, where medical superintendents wielded outsized power to order the procedures for a range of reasons. Little state oversight existed. Sometimes the superintendent’s sole judgment was sufficient before permanently altering patients’ bodies, according to research by Stern, who directs a research team that has spent years studying the issue.

Men almost always received vasectomies. Women were typically subjected to tubal ligation, the cutting or tying of the fallopian tubes to prevent sperm from reaching an egg. In the early years of California’s program, men made up the majority of patients, but operations on women were more frequent by the 1930s, Stern said. By mid-century, nearly all patients were women.

Sterilizations fell sharply in the early 1950s, according to Stern. The nascent disability rights movement began to push back against institutionalization and pressure psychiatric hospitals to focus on different types of care.

But a series of amendments helped keep the California’s sterilization law on the books until 1979, even as similar legislation in other states was overturned in court for violating people’s constitutional rights.

“In California, officials wanted to be careful not to bring undue legal scrutiny to the law,” Stern said.

It wasn’t until 2003 that the state formally apologized for the campaign. “Our hearts are heavy for the pain caused by eugenics,” then-Gov. Gray Davis said. “It was a sad and regrettable chapter, one that must never be repeated.”

But the specter of forced sterilizations returned just a few years later. Reporting by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that California prison officials had sterilized 144 inmates between 2006 and 2010, pressuring them into the surgeries and failing to get proper consent.

A state audit later concluded that at least 39 of the sterilizations in that period were performed unlawfully. In the majority of those cases, the audit said, physicians failed to sign the inmate’s consent form saying the inmate was mentally competent and understood the long-term effects.

It could be relatively easy to find and notify those inmates if the reparations package passes. But tracking down survivors of the state’s historical sterilization program could be a challenge. Even the youngest are seniors, and some may not even know they underwent the procedures. Advocates estimate fewer than 400 are still alive, down from about 800 just a few years ago. They say they expect about 150 of them to come forward.

“Often these were people who were marginalized to begin with. We’re also talking about an aging population, many of whom would be in their 70s, 80s or 90s today,” Stern said. “There needs to be an immediate campaign to get the word out.”

Beyond that, Stern said, it’s important to preserve the memory so it doesn’t happen again.