Davis’ Apology Sheds No Light on Sterilizations in California
To make amends for a state program that sterilized 7,600 people against their will, North Carolina’s governor created a panel last year to probe the history of the effort, interview survivors and consider reparations.
In Oregon, then-Gov. John Kitzhaber last year apologized in person to some of the 2,600 people sterilized there, and he created an annual Human Rights Day to commemorate the state’s mistake. On the day Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner apologized, Jesse Meadows and other victims unveiled a roadside marker.
“It felt pretty good to be there, even though it was so late,” said Meadows, 80.
Some historians and advocates for the disabled had a mixed reaction to the apology issued Tuesday by Gov. Gray Davis for California’s policy, the most aggressive in the nation, which sterilized an estimated 20,000 mentally disabled people and others from 1909 through the 1960s.
Davis offered his apology in a press release. No survivors or disability groups were on hand to accept it. There was no order to probe for more details of a history that, according to scholars, is still largely unexplored and not fully understood.
“It’s like a preemptive apology.... We don’t know yet who to apologize to,” said Alexandra Stern, a University of Michigan historian who is writing a book about California’s sterilization program.
“An apology with no attempt to find the people who deserve to receive it is meaningless,” said Stephen Drake, research analyst with Not Dead Yet, a national disability rights group. “If the governor is serious about wanting to understand this shameful chapter of California history, then you need an effort to study the records of just how this was done.”
“I think it’s premature,” said Paul Lombardo, a University of Virginia historian who revived interest in the state policy when he lectured Tuesday to a California Senate committee. The lecture, which some officials said was the first time they had heard of the sterilization policy, triggered a statement within hours from Davis and a separate apology from state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer.
Lombardo and Drake said the apologies were welcome as acknowledgments of past abuse. “But if they don’t try to understand the history, then I don’t know what it’s worth,” Lombardo added.
Historians have only recently begun to explore California’s sterilization effort. Primarily at institutions for the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled, the state sterilized thousands of people under the premise that the “unfit” should be removed from the gene pool so their children would not burden society.
But some of the basic details still are missing. Among them: exactly how many people were sterilized.
The mentally ill and developmentally disabled were the initial focus of the policy, but some historians believe that it also targeted Mexican and Asian immigrants, criminals, juvenile delinquents and sexually active women.
Even the date that the practice ended is unclear, though it may have been as late as 1969.
“We checked that and we haven’t been able to determine that,” said Bertha Gorman, spokeswoman for the California Health and Human Services Agency. Because of patient confidentiality rules, historians have had little access to state records that might shed light on the state’s sterilization history.
“Shouldn’t we demand that the state fill in the history?” asked David Mitchell, who runs a disabilities studies program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “That would be the foundation of a meaningful apology.”
Russell Lopez, a spokesman for the governor, said he had called three state departments last week in an attempt to find survivors but was told no names could be released because of patient confidentiality rules.
“The governor just learned about this,” Lopez said, “and he decided it was something he must do: apologize for what the Legislature did in the past.”
In Virginia, North Carolina and Oregon, a combination of media interest and university research brought attention to past sterilization programs and led to the state apologies.
Although some details remain clouded, there is no doubt that California was once home to the largest sterilization program in the nation and to some of the most influential supporters of the practice, including the publisher of the Los Angeles Times in the 1930s.
At least 30 states passed laws in the first decades of the 1900s that aimed to shape society by denying the so-called unfit the ability to reproduce. Scientists already had shown how careful breeding could improve crops and livestock. Now, they were arguing that selective breeding could improve humanity and wipe out poverty, prostitution and mental illness, which were thought to have genetic roots.
The concept, known as eugenics, led to the sterilization of more than 63,000 people in the United States from about 1907 through the 1970s.
California accounted for one-third of all operations. Its sterilization law was the second in the nation, after Indiana’s.
The state’s enthusiasm for eugenics was so well known that it is mentioned in “The Great Gatsby.” When Nazi Germany wrote its sterilization policy, it borrowed from California’s law, historians say.
“Why California more than other states? That’s a key question,” Stern said. “I think it has to do with the need to civilize the frontier.”
In better breeding practices, Californians saw a way to control the chaos of nature. And their use in human reproduction had the support of prominent citizens, including then-Stanford University President David Starr Jordan and Pasadena citrus magnate Ezra Gosney, who founded one of the most influential think tanks devoted to eugenics, the Human Betterment Foundation, in 1926.
Another cheerleader was The Times, whose publisher, Harry Chandler, was listed as a member of the Human Betterment Foundation in a 1938 pamphlet by the group.
“We have secured the ardent support of the Los Angeles Times,” Gosney wrote in a 1937 dispatch to the Eugenical News, a monthly periodical. “They are running an article each week in their Sunday magazine edition which, while not as good as the editor-owner of the paper would like, keeps the subject before the people and does much to encourage us in carrying on.”
That Sunday column, called “Social Eugenics,” ran from 1935 to 1941 and argued for strong sterilization laws, said Lombardo of the University of Virginia. The paper ran at least 120 of them, he added.
Through much of the 1930s, many sterilization advocates also cheered on the eugenics policies in Germany. “Why Hitler Says: ‘Sterilize the Unfit!’ ” ran a headline in a 1935 issue of The Times’ magazine. “Here, perhaps, is an aspect of the new Germany that America, with the rest of the world, can little afford to criticise.”
Under California law, people with “mental disease” could be sterilized if doctors believed the condition could be passed to descendants. The superintendents of state institutions had broad authority to decide how often to use the procedure, Stern said.
“The term ‘mental disease’ could be interpreted broadly,” she said. “People who were epileptics were lumped in there, and people with ‘perverse’ sexual tendencies, so you had gay men.”
Some who were sterilized had landed in state institutions on grounds of theft, forgery and truancy from school. In some places, women appear to have been sterilized merely for promiscuity.
“Something like 25% of the girls who have been sterilized were sent up here solely, or primarily, for that purpose,” wrote Paul Popenoe, director of the Human Betterment Foundation, during a 1926 research trip to the Sonoma State Home for the Feeble-Minded. “They are kept only a few months -- long enough to operate and instill a little discipline in them; and then returned home.”
Stern and Lombardo believe that hundreds of prisoners, as well as many of the women and others at the Sonoma facility, are not included in the commonly cited figure of 20,000 sterilizations in California.
They also suspect that the state’s strong anti-immigrant movement of the early 1900s targeted Mexicans and other nonwhite groups with sterilization, an attempt to dilute their presence in the population. But no broad survey of the racial and ethnic profile of sterilization patients has been done
Joel Braslow, an associate professor of psychiatry at UCLA, says critiques of sterilization laws often misstate how the policy was practiced.
In state institutions, he says, doctors cared little about eugenics. Instead, they saw sterilization as a humane and beneficial treatment for patients, along with lobotomies and other now-discredited practices.
“In practice, we didn’t sterilize the severely retarded,” said Dr. William Keating, a surgeon at Sonoma State Hospital throughout the 1950s. “They had very little opportunity for sex. The people we concentrated on were people who were moderately retarded, who had a chance of going out and getting pregnant.”
In an interview, Keating said he performed 500 to 600 tubal ligations and vasectomies at the institution. Individuals who could perform some sort of job outside the institution would be released, but not if they were at risk of getting pregnant or impregnating someone. In effect, sterilization was a ticket to a work furlough, or general release.
Keating recalled a young man who had an IQ he estimated to be 85. After his vasectomy, the man was released, only to return for a visit one day -- in full Army uniform. He had become a first lieutenant during the Korean War.
Eugenic sterilizations tailed off through the 1950s and 1960s but remained legal until 1979. Today, state law allows sterilization for mentally incompetent people who cannot give informed consent. A court-appointed conservator must petition a judge for permission.
Victim Jesse Meadows said that Virginia, at least, “ought to pay people for what they did.” Meadows, of Lynchburg, was sent to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded in 1940, after his mother died and his father remarried. He was sterilized there, at age 17.
“They said it was to help my health ... and so I wouldn’t have no feeble-minded children,” Meadows said.
Virginia’s apology and roadside marker “helped me some,” Meadows said. “But it’s hard to forget that somebody ruined your life like that.”
Times staff writer Dan Morain and research librarian Janet Lundblad contributed to this report.