State Issues Apology for Policy of Sterilization

Times Staff Writer

It was a dark chapter in American history. For more than half a century, California and other states forcibly sterilized 60,000 mentally ill people as part of a misguided national campaign to eliminate crime, “feeblemindedness,” alcoholism, poverty and other problems blamed for dragging society down.

On Tuesday, Gov. Gray Davis apologized, placing California in a small group of states that have issued formal regrets.

“To the victims and their families of this past injustice,” Davis said in a statement, “the people of California are deeply sorry for the suffering you endured over the years. Our hearts are heavy for the pain caused by eugenics. It was a sad and regrettable chapter ... one that must never be repeated.”


As eugenics was practiced in California and 31 other states at various times between 1909 and 1964, when it stopped, individuals considered defective included alcoholics, petty criminals, the poor, disabled and mentally ill.

About 20,000 people were involuntarily sterilized in an attempt to prevent their genes from being passed on to another generation.

Eugenics was intended to “clean up the gene pool,” Paul Lombardo, an expert on the subject, said during a presentation at the Capitol only hours before Davis acted.

The policy was horribly misguided and resulted in the human rights of thousands being routinely violated by a coercive government with the support of the Supreme Court, said Lombardo, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

He spoke at a special California Senate hearing on eugenics and the history of mandatory sterilization of supposedly defective people.

Sen. Dede Alpert (D-San Diego) said she intends to introduce a resolution that will express the Legislature’s apology.


Davis issued the official regrets shortly after state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer apologized for one of his predecessors, Atty. Gen. Ulysses S. Webb, who enthusiastically supported forced sterilization as “enlightened” law free of legal “inhibitions.” Webb served from 1903 until 1939.

Lockyer said it is never too late to apologize for the bigotry practiced against the disabled and others who were “seen as misfits of the time.” He said the lessons of eugenics should not be lost in this era of cloning and genetic engineering advancements.

Lombardo said later that he was stunned that a gubernatorial apology from Davis would occur so quickly.

“I never expected that I’d finish a lecture at noon and the governor would make an apology by 3:30 p.m.,” Lombardo said.

He and George Cunningham, a genetic disease expert in the state Department of Health Services, said it was unknown how many forced-sterilization victims are living in California, but suggested that the number is probably small because most sterilizations occurred before World War II.

“There is no registry of these cases,” Lombardo said.

Davis’ apology did not propose reparations or other compensation to the victims or their families.

Lombardo said it would be difficult for survivors to collect damages in a lawsuit against the government because the Supreme Court had upheld the constitutionality of forced sterilization in 1927.

He told the hearing of the Select Committee on Genetics, Genetic Technologies and Public Policy that Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich borrowed generously from U.S. laws when it imposed forced sterilization on “undesirables.”

Lombardo, a lawyer and historian, said eugenics started with the goal of encouraging development of a world of healthy individuals who would pass along their best traits to the next generation.

He said many leading minds of the late 1800s and early 1900s enthusiastically supported eugenics.

Contests were held to determine “perfect children,” movies publicized the movement, and major foundations financed eugenics research, Lombardo said.

He said supporters were successful in persuading the Los Angeles Times to run a series of favorable articles about eugenics in its Sunday magazine.

Lombardo said eugenics was an “incredibly popular movement” and a household word in America because Americans “all wanted to help the children.” Eugenics was defined as “to be well born” and to have a “happy heritage.”

At the time, the mantra was, “Let’s get rid of crime and poverty. Let’s have healthy children. Who could argue against it?”

In 1929, California became the second state to adopt forced sterilization as law and accounted for a third of the total cases nationally during the 35 years that eugenics was state policy, he said.

Many early supporters of eugenics became disillusioned with the movement, Lombardo said, when it got sidetracked into a policy for selective breeding.