Hundreds of Californians who were forcibly sterilized based on eugenics laws in the last century might still be alive and deserve an apology and financial reparations, a new study concludes.
In a Sacramento government office, historian and lead author Alexandra Minna Stern stumbled across a filing cabinet containing about 20,000 recommendations for eugenics-motivated sterilizations dating from 1919 through 1952.
Stern, a professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and her colleagues used the documents and actuarial tables to calculate that as many as 831 men, women and children slated for sterilization could still be alive and would be on average almost 88 years old.
Many of the typewritten and signed sterilization recommendations were for children, the youngest 7 years old, Stern said in a phone interview.
One was for Rose Zaballos. Today she would be 93. But she died in 1939, when she was just 16, on the operating table at the Sonoma State Home during surgery to prevent her from conceiving, according to her niece, Barbara Swarr of Hayward, California. In a phone interview, Swarr described her aunt as “mentally retarded.”
California had the right to sterilize Rose Zaballos under a 1909 state law authorizing reproductive surgery on patients committed to homes or hospitals and judged to have a “mental disease which may have been inherited” and was “likely to be transmitted to descendants,” Stern's team writes in the American Journal of Public Health.
The California statute provided the legal framework for the most active sterilization program in the U.S., the study says. The law remained on the books until 1979.
“This was one of these dramatic and significant episodes in the state’s history that shouldn’t be forgotten,” Stern said. “Each of these 20,000 people was their own individual, with their own life story, loves, passions.
“They are people who should have been treated with dignity,” she said.
In 2003, then-Governor Gray Davis publicly apologized for the state-mandated sterilizations. But Stern believes the Californians who were rendered incapable of conceiving children as a result of the government program deserve more than just an apology.
“The state could never completely right this wrong,” she said. In the name of social justice, though, she believes California should follow the lead of North Carolina and Virginia and offer financial compensation to those who were forcibly sterilized and are still alive.
North Carolina has offered $20,000 to each of its sterilization victims and Virginia offered $25,000, according to Stern’s report.
Attorney and historian Paul Lombardo, a law professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, has written extensively about compulsory sterilization. He praised the new study for filling in details that could help locate people who could be eligible for reparations.
In 2003, when Davis apologized, only one person who had been forcibly sterilized – a man living in a car in Stockton – could be located, Lombardo said in a phone interview.
“You had a population of people who didn’t exactly want to put ‘sterilized’ on their resumes,” he said.
The study describes one sterilization recommendation for a woman admitted to the Sonoma State Home in 1926. She had an IQ of 56, which led a doctor to categorize her as “low moron.” The physician deemed her “sly, profane, obstinate, . . . dangerous to public health” and recommended that she be sterilized.
Stern and her team do not know which of the people recommended for sterilization actually had the surgery, she said.
California passed the third eugenics law in the U.S. and performed one-third of all the nation’s estimated 60,000 forced sterilizations, the study says. Following a 1927 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of Virginia’s sterilization law, sterilization rates climbed.
Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote the majority opinion in the case, Buck v. Bell. He compared the state’s duty to sterilize patient Carrie Buck to the need to protect the public against smallpox with compulsory vaccinations.
Holmes concluded: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Lombardo would like to see California’s surviving sterilization victims financially compensated.
“In the name of doing something that is simply about justice,” he said, “it seems to me the states can afford this.”