Tuesday, July 20, 2021
By K.A. Dilday (July 20, 2021)
On July 12, California governor Gavin Newsom, signed into law AB-1764, a bill to pay reparations to people who were forcibly sterilized in California during the years 1909 and 1979 when the state’s eugenic sanctions law (enacted in 1909 and honed throughout the years) was in place, and to people who were sterilized in the state's prison system after that time. California is the third state, following North Carolina and Virginia, that will compensate victims of forced sterilization.
The bill signed by Gov. Newsom is particularly noteworthy as both the issue of reparations and of forced sterilization figure prominently in national dialogue. Just last year, a nurse at a privately owned immigration jail in Georgia joined in a whistleblower complaint alleging that a doctor at the facility performed a high rate of hysterectomies on migrating women without “proper informed consent,” and bills proposing reparations for the descendants of enslaved Black Americans are regularly debated in the U.S. Congress.
According to the final text of California’s AB-1764, the forced eugenics law targeted people deemed afflicted with “mental disease,” “feeblemindedness,” and, “those suffering from perversion or marked departures from normal mentality or from disease of a syphilitic nature.”
During the 70 years that the law was in place, the reparations bill states, “more than 20,000 people were sterilized, making California the nation’s leader by far in sterilizations, a number that was more than one-third of the 60,000 persons sterilized nationwide in 32 states … between 1919 and 1952, women and girls were 14 percent more likely to be sterilized than men and boys. Male Latino patients were 23 percent more likely to be sterilized than non-Latino male patients, and female Latina patients were 59 percent more likely to be sterilized than non-Latina female patients.”
That law was finally overturned in 1979 after 10 Los Angeles women of Mexican origin brought a lawsuit in federal court against the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center for involuntary or forced sterilization in Madrigal v. Quilligan (1978). While the judge ruled in favor of the defendants, ascribing the unwanted sterilizations to miscommunication and language barriers, the women of Madrigal v. Quilligan nonetheless reshaped history. The next year, the state legislature overturned the law. They did not win for themselves but they won for future Californians.
Or so it seemed, since, notably, while the formal eugenics law ended in 1979, a program of sterilization as birth control and for dubious medical reasons led to the sterilization of approximately 150 mostly Latina and Black women in California prisons between 2006 and 2010.
In 2014, the bill SB 1135 made sterilization for birth control in California prisons unlawful, and put in place safeguards to ensure that any sterilization deemed medically necessary for an imprisoned person actually is. However, no reparations for past sterilizations were mandated at that time.
Eugenics-driven sterilization in the United States has always been directed at those deemed mentally infirm or undesirable, a characteristic that is often assigned to people of color and to imprisoned people. This practice was sanctioned federally by the notorious 1927 Buck v. Bell U.S. Supreme Court decision. While Buck v. Bell was discredited by the Supreme Court decision in Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942) that established procreation as a fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution, and has been chipped away by other protective laws, Buck v. Bell has never been overturned.
In addition to the eugenics programs in California, throughout the 19th century and through the mid-20th century there was mass forced sterilization of poor people (many black and Latino) in the South, Indigenous people in Western and middle-America, and of Puertoriquenos in Puerto Rico through the 1970s. But forced sterilizations were also performed on people who were deemed either mentally or morally unworthy, regardless of race.
California convened a "Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans" this year, and while some may see AB-1764 as another step toward direct reparations, the bill only authorizes payment to individuals who were sterilized, thus avoiding the complex issue of generational injury. And, unless they adopted or had biological children before the procedure, many people who were sterilized likely do not have offspring, reducing the number of descendants who might protest the bill’s limits on eligibility to bring a claim.
The status of potential claimants who are undocumented is unclear.
The state has allocated $7.5 million to pay the victims. According to The New York Times, the limited number of living potential claimants means that each successful applicant is likely to receive approximately $25,000.