In 1909, the state of California passed legislation that allowed medical superintendents at hospitals and state homes to forcibly sterilize patients they believed were "unfit for reproduction", beginning a eugenics program that would go on for 70 years.
Across the United States in the 20th Century, the eugenics movement – which saw people with mental and physical disabilities as "genetically inferior" and aimed to stop them from reproducing – sterilized over 60,000 people in such programs, with California accounting for at least 20,000. Prisoners were also sterilized in the program if they were jailed for showing "sex or moral perversions".
The state is now preparing to pay compensation to victims of forced sterilization, spending $1 million to honor victims with plaques, $2 million on advertising to seek out other potential victims, and $4.5 million for reparations to be paid directly to the survivors.
“We often discuss a woman’s right to choose. A right that also includes the choice of becoming a mother. Unfortunately, that choice has been taken from many women," Assemblymember Carrillo said in a statement. “As a state, we must ensure we rectify that wrong and we must do more than simply recognize the horrific impact of eugenic sterilization programs on Californian families, and the devastating consequences of this failed attempt to eradicate populations.”
Throughout the 20th Century, people of color and the poorest communities were targeted by the program, which was seen as a model by Nazi eugenicists, who contacted California for advice for their own program. Across the US, women seen as too promiscuous were sterilized as a "cure", the uneducated (including refugees without access to education), and those labeled delinquents also became victims to the state. The majority were deemed "mentally defective", a term that could apply to everyone from people with schizophrenia to people with epilepsy and alcoholics. When the "undesirables" were immigrants, they could be deported, when they were American, they were subject to sterilization, needing only the approval of three doctors, and with no recourse to appeal.
Some of the victims of the sterilizations were as young as 11 at the time of the procedure. One such victim was Mary Franco, who at 13 was labeled "feeble-minded" and a sexual deviant. According to her relatives, she had actually been molested by a neighbor.
Teenager Charlie Follett, who found himself at California's Sonoma State Home, wasn't told what procedure he was having, some 7 decades ago.
"First, they shot me with some kind of medicine. It was supposed to deaden the nerves," he told CNN in 2012. "Then the next thing I heard was snip, snip, and that was it."
He had been placed in the home when his parents were unable to care for him, due to their alcoholism.
Though California officially repealed the law in 1979, 144 female inmates at prisons in the state underwent sterilization between 2005 and 2013, many under pressure from the institutions. The women will be entitled to compensation from the state for the sterilizations that took place.