Our VoiceCulture

Investigation, Compensation for Victims of Recent Sterilization Programs


Lauren Taylor • Jul 19, 2013

In North Carolina and California, victims of coerced and forced sterilization are demanding compensation. In the early 20th century, both states passed eugenics-based sterilization laws that explicitly aimed to prevent people with mental or physical disabilities from having children. In practice, these policies singled out people who were institutionalized or receiving welfare benefits, and disproportionately impacted poor women and women of color.

Though compulsory sterilization officially ended in 1963 in California and in 1974 in North Carolina, a recent report reveals that as many as 250 prisoners were illegally sterilized in California women’s prisons between 1997 and 2010, and many reported being coerced, pressured, or misinformed about the procedure.

Last week, lawmakers and advocates in California responded to the report with a variety of demands.

Many demanded an investigation into the sterilization abuse. Several wrote a letter to the Medical Board asking them to investigate the physicians who performed the tubal ligations and make recommendations to the legislature to prevent such abuse from happening again. Republican state senators called for a committee hearing and investigation.

The California Legislative Women’s Caucus also penned a letter to the federal official who oversees medical care within the state prison system. Twenty legislators signed onto the letter, demanding to know how the sterilizations happened, and sharply criticizing the federal receiver:

“These instances of unauthorized tubal ligations under your watch violate California state laws. Pressuring a vulnerable population – including at least one documented instance of a patient under sedation to undergo these extreme procedures erodes the ban on eugenics. In our view, such a practice violates Constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment; protections that you were appointed to enforce.”

The authors ask the official to answer within two weeks and declare they will request the State Auditor to investigate further.

Outside of the state capitol, advocates at Justice Now started a petition demanding not only investigations, but also notification and compensation:

“We demand notification and reparation for all people illegally sterilized in prison, a public state budget hearing into the fraudulent use of state funds for illegal sterilizations, and an immediate halt to women’s jail construction in Los Angeles and San Mateo.”

The recently publicized abuse within California’s prisons connects to the state’s earlier eugenics programs – and its failure to come to terms with its disturbing past. California sterilized more people under its eugenics program than any other state. Though California Governor Gray Davis did apologize for the state’s earlier eugenics program in 2003, the apology did not go far to investigate, notify potential victims, or make amends.

According to the CIR report, the state’s prison system has yet to recognize the extent of their participation in compulsory sterilization programs. In state hearings, expert Alexandra Minna Stern testified that she “found in private hands and university archives evidence of 600 sterilizations at San Quentin State Prison prior to 1941 that were not included in official numbers.” Despite this testimony, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), said that it “played a miniscule role” in the state’s eugenics program.

Coming to terms with the history of eugenics in the US is crucial to prohibiting such practices today and in the future. North Carolina has gone further than California to investigate its own compulsory sterilization laws, and to compensate those it targeted. This year, the North Carolina House passed a budget that includes $10 million for victims of compulsory sterilization, but the Senate’s budget does not include money for compensation. There is still a chance to include compensation – particularly if lawmakers and the governor make it a priority in conference committee negotiations.

Now is a critical moment to listen to the stories of those targeted in North Carolina and California, support their demands for compensation for the survivors, and to put an end to reproductive abuse.

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