Berkeley lawmaker wants to provide monetary damages to survivors of forced sterilizations
It’s one of the darkest blights on the 20th century, when the United States allowed people committed to psychiatric wards and other state-run facilities to be neutered without their consent. California was a leading agent of the draconian practice known as eugenics, accounting for approximately one-third of all forced sterilizations in the nation. Now, as a recent study highlights just how brazenly racist California’s eugenics program actually was, a bill that would have compensated the surviving victims for the injustices they bore is languishing in the state Senate.
It’s unclear whether Senate Bill 1190 will be put to a vote this year. The proposed legislation would create a financial reparations program under the California Victim Compensation Board, to give a yet-to-be-determined amount of money to survivors of forced sterilizations. On April 30, the Senate Committee on Appropriations placed Sen. Nancy Skinner’s bill on its suspense file, which may prevent it from advancing this year.
Popularized as a way to eliminate hereditary disorders, genetic defects and traits deemed “abnormal” by the social structures of the time, eugenics practices were most popular during the early part of the 20th century, but remained legal for seven decades in California, where at least 20,000 people underwent medical procedures to prevent them from procreating.
A recent medical study says Latinas and Latinos were disproportionately targeted by California’s eugenics policy thanks to anti-Mexican hostilities in the state. Those attitudes have been revived generations later by a Trump administration that recently ended a policy that limited the detention of pregnant undocumented women.
“This new policy further exposes the cruelty of Trump’s detention and deportation force by endangering the lives of pregnant immigrant women,” Victoria Lopez, American Civil Liberties Union senior staff counsel, said in a written statement.
According to an article in the March issue of American Journal of Public Health, Latinas in state-run institutions were 59 percent more likely to be subjected to forced sterilization procedures. Latino men in these hospitals were at 29 percent greater risk than their counterparts of different ethnicity.
“Eugenic thinking inscribed ’scientific’ legitimacy to racial stereotypes of Latinas/os as inferior and unfit to reproduce,” wrote the authors of the March article. “In California, eugenics programs were linked to efforts to reduce immigration, particularly from Mexico, during a time when growing anti-Mexican sentiment manifested in school segregation and racial housing covenants.”
California had the most active eugenics program in the nation, with a third of all documented compulsory sterilizations occurring in the state between 1909 and the 1950s. The practice was finally outlawed in 1979.
The American Journal article estimated that 831 of the 20,000 victims were still alive in 2016.
The study prompted Skinner and her coauthors to introduce SB 1190. Similar laws have been adopted in recent years in Virginia and North Carolina, out of a total of 32 states with a history of permitting eugenics programs. The Senate appropriations committee placed the bill’s price tag at around $1.3 million, but it’s unclear why the six senators on the committee voted to put the measure on the suspense file. Sen. Pat Bates didn’t record a vote.
Skinner remains confident that the bill will make it out of the suspense hearing planned this week.
“Providing victims of California’s forced sterilizations with compensation has a cost, so it makes sense my bill, SB 1190, is being reviewed by the Appropriations Committee,” the Berkeley Democrat said in a statement provided to SN&R. “I’m optimistic SB 1190 will move forward and ultimately offer solace to living survivors of this horrible practice.”
In 2003, California issued a formal apology for its eugenics legacy in the state hospital system. SB 1190 would be the first law in the state to specifically recognize that Latinos were disproportionately affected by state-authorized eugenics. The bill also names 12 state hospitals in total that would be required to place commemorative plaques to note that eugenics practices occurred.
Stockton State Hospital is included in that list. Founded in 1851, the Stockton location was California’s first state-run mental hospital and saw one of the largest volumes of patients.
The superintendent of Stockton State Hospital from 1929 to 1946, Margaret Smyth, published multiple articles on her refined technique for sterilizations in medical journals. Smyth later praised Nazi Germany for emulating and massively expanding American eugenic sterilization practices, according to the San Joaquin Historical Society.
After more than a century in operation, Stockton State Hospital closed its doors in 1996 after multiple reorganizations and downsizes in the state’s health system.
The earliest patients to arrive at DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn were likely overflow patients of Stockton State Hospital. Originally a military hospital during World War II, DeWitt transformed into a state psychiatric hospital that was active from 1946 to 1972. Ralph Gibson, who oversees the museum at the former state hospital, says that sterilization practices may not have been as common here as DeWitt operated after the time period when eugenics was most popular. Gazing upon a table spread of aging electro-shock therapy instruments and lobotomy diagrams, Gibson said patients were, however, subject to the mental health treatments of the mid-20th century.
“You were really incarcerated,” Gibson said.
Many patients found their way after run-ins with police who might have deemed them more fit for the psychiatric ward than a jail.
The hospital was also notoriously understaffed. Compared to the military hospital days that employed up to 2,000 staff, for the mental hospital only 200-to-300 staff were available for about 3,000 patients, Gibson said.
Most of the state hospital system shrank rapidly after 1968, when new laws required judicial review before mentally ill persons could be institutionally committed. DeWitt closed its doors in 1972. When Placer County repurposed the hospital for its administrative headquarters, it wasn’t uncommon for staffers to see the hospital’s former patients wandering the grounds when they came to work in the morning, Gibson said.
Five former eugenics sites still remain up and running, including hospitals in Atascadero, Coalinga, Napa, Patton and Los Angeles.