SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California is poised to approve reparations up to $25,000 to victims who were among the thousands of people — some as young as 13 — who decades ago were sterilized because state officials deemed them unfit to have children. The payments, part of the state’s new $262.6 billion operating budget that is awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature, will make California at least the third state after Virginia and North Carolina to pay victims of the so-called eugenics movement that peaked in the 1930s. Proponents believed sterilizing people with mental illnesses, physical disabilities, and other so-called undesirable traits would improve the human race.
California’s proposal is unique because it would apply to more than just victims of the eugenics law repealed in 1979. The state also will pay female inmates who were coerced to get sterilized, a disgrace first exposed by the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2013. A subsequent audit found the state fixed 144 women between 2005 and 2013 with little or no evidence that officials counseled them or offered alternative treatment. While all of the women signed consent forms, in 39 cases, state officials did not do everything legally required to obtain their permission.
“We must address and face our horrific history,” said Lorena Garcia Zermeño, policy and communications coordinator for the advocacy group California Latinas for Reproductive Justice. “This isn’t something that just happened in the past.”
California’s forced sterilization program started in 1909, following similar laws in Indiana and Washington. California’s program was by far the largest. The state sterilized more than 20,000 people, accounting for about a third of everyone fixed in the United States under those laws.
California’s law was so prominent it even inspired similar practices in Nazi Germany, according to Paul Lombardo, a law professor at Georgia State University and an expert on the eugenics movement. The promise of eugenics at the very earliest is: ‘We could do away with all the state institutions — prisons, hospitals, asylums, orphanages,'” Lombardo said. “People who were in them just wouldn’t be born after a while if you sterilized all of their parents.”
In California, victims include Mary Franco, who was sterilized in 1934 when she was just 13. Paperwork described her as “feeble-minded” because of “sexual deviance,” according to her niece, Stacy Cordova, who has researched her case. Cordova said Franco actually was molested by a neighbor. She said her family put Franco in an institution to protect the family’s reputation. Cordova said her late aunt loved children and wanted to have a family.
She married briefly when she was 17, but Cordova said the marriage was annulled when the man discovered Franco couldn’t have children. She lived a lonely life in Mexican culture that revered prominent families, Cordova said. “I don’t know if it is justice. Money doesn’t pay for what happened to them. But it’s great to know that this is being recognized,” said Cordova, who has advocated for the state to pay survivors. “For me, this is not about the money. This is about the memory.”