California should pay reparations to victims of its eugenics-based sterilization programs, which took away the reproductive abilities of about 20,000 people in the first half of the 20th century, researchers said in a new study.
In particular, Mexican immigrants were disproportionately affected by those programs. And overall, an estimated 800 victims may still be alive today, according to the paper, which was released last week.
“Given the advanced age and declining numbers of sterilization survivors, time is of the essence for the state to seriously consider reparations,” said Alexandra Stern at the University of Michigan, the study’s lead author.
Nationwide, Virginia and North Carolina have set up funds to compensate survivors of sterilization programs that were based on the eugenics movement.
Followers of the eugenics campaign believed that people they deemed genetically “unfit” shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce. The American movement was a model and inspiration for the atrocities that took place in Nazi Germany, experts have documented.
California led the United States in the number of sterilizations during that movement; about a third of such procedures in the nation happened there. It’s unclear how active the programs were in San Diego County.
California’s law permitting the sterilizations was passed in 1909 and remained on the books until 1979. In 2003, Gov. Gray Davis issued a brief official apology on behalf of the state.
“To the victims and their families of this past injustice, the people of California are deeply sorry for the suffering you endured over the years,” he wrote. “Our hearts are heavy for the pain caused by eugenics. It was a sad and regrettable chapter … one that must never be repeated.”
Lawmakers’ fears of the growing numbers of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in California led to disproportionate use of sterilization on Mexican-origin youths, said Natalie Lira, a researcher on Stern’s team and an assistant professor at the University of Illinois.
Stereotyping of Mexicans during the eugenics movement made its way into immigration laws, political discourse and popular media — and it persists today, Lira and Stern said. They noted that the National Origins Act, passed in 1924, was influenced by the California movement. The federal legislation created immigration quotas, including reductions in the number of people allowed into this country from areas outside of northern Europe.
Eugenicists believed young Mexican women were promiscuous and that young Mexican men were criminals by nature.
Lira said Mexican women also were thought of as hyperfertile, which added to eugenicists’ fears that they would have many children and harm the American gene pool. These women were frequently compared to animals, Lira said.
Young women who had children outside of marriage or who were deemed sexually promiscuous were institutionalized at places such as the Pacific Colony and State Narcotics Hospital in Pomona, as were young men who committed minor violations or crimes, including school truancy and petty theft, Lira said. Many of the institutionalized were then sterilized.
In one case, Lira and Stern found a sterilization record from Pacific Colony for Fortuna Valencia, a “half Spanish, half Indian” California native who had 11 children from two marriages and at some point was referred to the welfare department. Valencia had scored “relatively high” on her IQ test, according to the researchers’ analysis.
Officials justified her sterilization because she had “fully demonstrated that she falls into the feeble-minded group when that group is defined by any sort of social orientation. Thus, Fortuna was sterilized for being a poor Mexican-origin woman with a large family,” the researchers wrote in their paper.
“What happened to the individuals that were committed to the institutions and sterilized really taught us a lot about how race and disability have been used and continue to be used to justify confinement and reproductive constraints,” Lira said.
For example, the Center for Investigative Reporting has reported that at least 148 women were sterilized in state prisons between 2006 and 2010.
Morrissey writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.