As part of the vile eugenics movement that swept the country during the first half of the 20th century, more than 60,000 women and men were sterilized in state homes and hospitals to prevent them from passing on what were considered defective genes.
Laws in 32 states allowed sterilizations to be performed at state-run institutions on people deemed “feeble minded” or mentally ill or even, in some cases, sexually promiscuous. However, nowhere was eugenics more aggressively practiced than in California. About 20,000 people in California were sterilized, mostly between 1920 and 1960, although the state law was in effect from 1909 to 1979. Most were forced or coerced. All were in the care of the state at the time. In some cases, hospitals made sterilization a condition for discharge. This newspaper’s publisher for much of the first half of the 20th century was a supporter of eugenics, and a regular column ran in the paper extolling its virtues.
Former Gov. Gray Davis issued a public apology for the practice in 2003. Apologies were issued in six other states as well. But is that enough? A recent paper published in the American Journal of Public Health by a University of Michigan professor, Alexandra Minna Stern, estimates that as many as 831 survivors of the procedure are alive today in California. While the law did not single out people by race or income, people who were poor and those with Spanish surnames were disproportionately sterilized. Stern believes the state government of California should offer reparations.
There’s no question that what was then considered a public health program is now recognized as a deplorable human rights abuse that robbed people of their reproductive rights. But does it require reparations? People of Japanese descent who were forced into internment camps during World War II received compensatory payments many years later. Although much debated, there has never been a program of reparations for slavery, the ultimate American human rights abuse.
The real question, according to both Stern and Georgia State University College of Law Professor Paul Lombardo, should not be which evils are worse than other evils. A better question is what is feasible and fair. In this case, there are reliable records of who was victimized — and the possibility that many are still alive and could be traced.
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