As appalling as it sounds today, the practice of sterilizing mentally ill women and men to prevent them from passing on their supposedly defective genes was routine and accepted across the United States in the first half of the 20th century. But nowhere was the eugenics movement, as it was called, more entrenched and aggressively pursued than in California.
An estimated 20,000 people in the care of state homes and hospitals in California were sterilized because they were deemed mentally ill, "feeble-minded" or, in some cases, just sexually promiscuous; that's one-third of all the sterilizations that were performed under eugenics programs around the country. A disproportionate number of those sterilized, unsurprisingly, were poor or Latino. Many were pressured into giving consent; others were forced. Doctors in state institutions could order patients to undergo the procedure; the State Commission on Lunacy, created in 1913, often approved those decisions. The law allowing sterilizations was not repealed until 1979.
California has officially apologized; Gov. Gray Davis did so in 2003. But that's not enough. Academics and advocates have long argued for something more substantial than an apology to recognize this unconscionable violation of human rights perpetrated under law.
Now, the California Legislature has the chance to provide just that. A bill introduced by state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) would establish the Eugenics Sterilization Compensation Program to offer financial reparation to victims of this state-sponsored abuse. If SB 1190, now in the Senate Appropriations Committee, passes, it will make California the third state to compensate survivors of sterilization under the eugenics programs. This is the least that the state of California should do.
The program would offer compensation to anyone who was sterilized under the eugenics law at one of a dozen state institutions. There are an estimated 631 victims believed to be still alive.
The bill would require the existing California Victim Compensation Board to search out these still-living victims, who would be given a two-year period in which to apply. Their identities would be kept confidential. Their compensation would not be taxed by the state. (We would certainly hope not.) Descendants would not be eligible — just the victims themselves.
Right now, neither the size of the fund nor the size of the payout has been determined, although that could — and should — be worked out by the Appropriations Committee.
North Carolina offered victims $50,000 apiece. Virginia offered $25,000. If California went with the lower number, as the nonprofit advocacy group Disability Rights California suggests, and if (as in other states) one-quarter of the eligible recipients were to come forward, that would require roughly $4 million.
That would be the total size of the fund, so that if more people than expected were to come forward, each recipient ultimately would get less.
No matter what figure legislators decide on, it will be but a token, a modest offer of restitution for a colossal wrong that cannot be corrected or truly compensated. Nonetheless, it should be done. It's important that the state offer what advocates call a material acknowledgement of this injustice. The state should quickly pass this bill and launch a robust outreach effort to find these aging survivors and compensate them.