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By Sherry Smith
Warning: This story is about reparations for men, women, and children who were institutionalized and then victimized when forcibly or involuntarily sterilized. Tags: race, racism, abuse, eugenics, disability, misogyny, socio-economic class
In 1934, Mary Franco lived with her large, extended Latinx family in southern California. When she was 13, a neighbor sexually abused her. Mary became a victim again—committed to Pacific Colony where staff labeled her as “feeble minded” and sexually deviant.
The predator wasn’t arrested or prosecuted.
Mary was released from Pacific Colony a few years later and married. After her husband learned she had been forcibly sterilized, the marriage was annulled.
Roberto was only 15 when he was committed to a state hospital. Despite objections from his father and a Catholic priest, a doctor sterilized the boy without informed consent.
In 1939, Rosie was only 16 when she died during a sterilization procedure.
Mary, Roberto, and Rosie were children and three of the 20,000+ forcibly sterilized patients at state hospitals, part of California’s eugenics program from about 1909 to 1952.
Almost a century ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Buck v. Bell, that the state of Virginia could forcibly sterilize an eighteen-year-old depriving her constitutional right to make reproductive decisions.
According to the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab, 32 states passed eugenic sterilization laws “empowering authorities to sterilize people based on a wide range of racist, ableist, homophobic, and classist notions of “unfitness.”” Heather Dron, PhD, MPH, stated that in California, “more than 60% of sterilizations prior to 1950 occurred at 3 state institutions: Stockton State Hospital, Patton State Hospital, and Sonoma State Home.”
Governor Davis apologized in 2003 to the men, women, and children aged 7-70 victimized at the California State Hospitals. However, forced or involuntary sterilization later occurred at state prisons. From 2005-2013, over 850 people were involuntarily sterilized in women’s prisons.
Moonlight Pulido, a former inmate at Valley State Prison for Women, described what happened after Dr. Heinrich examined her. He claimed she had two potentially cancerous growths. Later she learned from a nurse that the doctor had completed a full hysterectomy without her informed consent.
Mary and Rosie died before California Health and Safety Code section 24210 et seq mandated compensation to the survivors of forced or involuntary sterilization. State hospital survivors would now be in their 80s and older.
On 12/31/21, Governor Gavin Newsom announced the Forced or Involuntary Sterilization Compensation Program (FISCP). “California is committed to confronting this dark chapter in the state’s past and addressing the impacts of this shameful history still being felt by Californians today…While we can never fully make amends for what they’ve endured, the state will do all it can to ensure survivors of wrongful sterilization receive compensation.”
In 2022, the California Victim Compensation Board provided indirect outreach by mailing posters and brochures to libraries and SNFs. No letters were sent directly to the eugenics survivors. By 12/31/22, only 3 out of the 20,000+ state hospital victims received compensation.
I’ve urged the FISCP to partner with the Department of Developmental Services, Department of State Hospitals, and Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, as well as other agencies and nonprofits to get the word out to all survivors.
Time is running out—only nine months remains for victims to apply for compensation.
This new law also requires state agencies to involve “stakeholders” to help decide about “markers or plaques at designated sites.”
I contacted survivors, family members of state hospital victims, and organizations working on their behalf and asked, “What can social workers do now?”
Stacy Cordova, a special education teacher and Mary Franco’s niece, urges social workers to listen to children and provide meaningful help to them.
Publicize the FISCP within your agencies and community organizations, suggested FISCP staff.
Social workers might assist survivors in filing applications for compensation with the FISCP. Heather Dron suggests, “Applicants and people supporting them should include a testimony of their period of residence at a state institution, when sterilization may have occurred, and whether they have any children and their birthdates (some people had children prior to sterilization).”
If applications are denied, social workers and lawyers might assist with appeals to the California Victim Compensation Board FISCP, suggests Hafsah Al-Amin with the California Coalition for Women’s Prisoners.
I urge social workers to write or call Governor Newsom and your state representatives. Ask them to guarantee the spirit and the letter of the law and ensure survivors of forced or involuntary sterilization receive the compensation they are entitled to.
Eugenics: According to the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institute of Health, “Eugenics is an immoral and pseudoscientific theory that claims it is possible to perfect people and groups through genetics and the scientific laws of inheritance…In their quest for a perfect society, eugenicists labelled many people as “unfit,” including ethnic and religious minorities, people with disabilities, the urban poor and LGBTQ individuals.” https://www.genome.gov/about-genomics/educational-resources/timelines/eugenics
Involuntary Sterilization: sterilization without informed consent or without the required state authorizations. Dr. Heinrich, a doctor contracted to work at Valley State Prison (Madera County) and California Institution for Women (Riverside County), claimed the money spent sterilizing inmates was minimal “compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children, as they procreated more.” Corey G. Johnson, “Prison doctor blamed for excessive sterilizations” Center for Investigative Reporting (www.cironline.org), February 16, 2014, accessed on SFGATE on 3/18/23.
- “California to pay victims of forced, coerced sterilizations,” by Associated Press, New York Post, February 25, 2023, updated July 8, 2021. Additional information about Mary Franco gathered during a telephone discussion, Sherry Smith with Stacy Cordova about her aunt.
- Sarah Zhang. “A Long-Lost Data Trove Uncovers California’s Sterilization Program,” The Atlantic, January 3, 2017. Dr. Alexandra Minna Stern described “Roberto’s” story that was quoted in this article.
- Samantha Young. “California Lawmakers Seek Reparations For People Sterilized by the State,” California Healthline, https://californiahealthline.org/news/author/samantha-young April 16, 2018. Rosie Zaballo’s niece described what had happened to her aunt.
- Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927): https://www.loc.gov/item/usrep2744200
Carrie Buck, committed to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble Minded, appealed the state’s decision to forcibly sterilize her without her consent. She lost. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the eighteen-year-old woman was ‘the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted, that she may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization.’
- Health and Safety Code section 24210 et seq: https://casetext.com/statute/california-codes/california-health-and-safety-code
- Seth Sandronsky. “Seeking justice: CalVCB’s forced or involuntary sterilization compensation program” https://capitolweekly.net posted 3/15/23.
- Dec 31, 2021, Office of Governor Gavin Newsom: https://www.gov.ca.gov/2021/12/31/california-launches-program-to-compensate
- Disproportionate Sterilization of Latinos Under California’s Eugenic Sterilization Program, 1920-1945, Nicolle L. Novak PhD, Natalie Lira PhD, Kate E. O’Connor MPH, Siobhan D. Harlow PhD, Sharon L.R. Kardia PhD, and Alexandra Minna Stern, PhD, published online on April 04, 2018, American Public Health Association. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29565671
- The Project Team at the University of Michigan compiled a timeline, map, and data about the sterilizations at Sonoma State Hospital: http://ec.ac.lsa.umich.edu
- California Victims Compensation Board Forced or Involuntary Compensation Program: https://victims.ca.gov/fiscp
- DREDF’s website explains the FISCP, how to apply, facts in English and Spanish, text of the law, social media tool kit, flyer, and press kit: https://dredf.org/california-forced-or-involuntary-sterilization-compensation-program
Organizations currently working with survivors of forced or involuntary sterilization and their families include, but are not limited to:
- Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund (DREDF) https://dredf.org
- California Coalition for Women’s Prisoners (CCWP) https://womenprisoners.org
- California Latinas for Reproductive Justice (CLRJ) https://californialatinas.org
- Disability Rights California (DRC) https://www.disabilityrightsca.org
- Sterilization and Social Justice Lab https://www.ssjlab.org
- No Más Bebés (2015) http://www.nomasbebesmovie.com
- Belly of the Beast (2020) https://www.bellyofthebeastfilm.com
- Marian Rose White (1982) https://prod-www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/474327/marian-rose-white#overview