There's a grim chapter in American history that involves forced sterilization. And for much of this past century, California had one of the most active sterilization programs in the country.
A state law from 1909 authorized the surgery for people judged to have "mental disease, which may have been inherited." That law remained on the books until 1979.
University of Michigan professor Alexandra Minna Stern has been working to identify people who were forcibly sterilized under California's program. NPR's Ailsa Chang spoke with Stern, who said this idea of eugenics was intended to "eradicate certain genes from the population."
The professor describes the program as a historic injustice and called for the state of California to compensate surviving victims of sterilization of relatives of those who are now deceased.
The interview highlights contain some extra content that did not air in the broadcast version.
On how she found the names of all the victims
The names are located in 19 microfilm reels that I happened upon while doing research in Sacramento about seven years ago.
On what made her look at the microfilms
I've written a book on the history of eugenics in California. But at that point, I still knew very little about the sterilizations themselves; who was sterilized, where did all of the sterilizations take place, how is the policy enacted?
So I did a bit of sleuthing and went to the actual departments themselves — the department of mental health in this case, in Sacramento — and was fortunate that someone there directed me to some file cabinets that contained microfilm reels with materials that had been microfilmed over the course of the '60s and '70s.
And lo and behold, there they were! I was able to begin using them as historical documents and that's how the project started.
On whether she found any patterns among the 20,000 names she discovered
Our team (and I should say this is the effort of a research team that includes epidemiologists, historians, digital humanists), we have a found a variety of patterns and we keep discovering more.
For example, we have determined that patients with Spanish surnames were much more likely to be sterilized than other patients, demonstrating that there was a racial bias in the sterilization program. We were also able to show the kinds of diagnoses that were given to patients, how that affected times of sterilization. We're able to look at age of sterilization and also patterns related to gender.
So there's a whole range of patterns that will help us to understand this pattern of history in California and also how it relates to national dynamics more broadly.
On what Stern and her team found with regard to age and gender patterns
Well, we found that people were sterilized at very young ages, that really often the focus was on minors, people as young as 7. The average age of sterilization was the low 20s, so many of these people were 15, 16, 17 and 18. We also found that, as I mentioned before, that the Spanish surname individuals were more likely to be sterilized at younger ages, indicating that there was interest on behalf of the state at targeting them at lower reproductive ages. In terms of gender, that pattern that I just mentioned, pertains to women as well.
One of the interesting things that we discovered is that initially, more men were sterilized. It started off as sterilization in general and across the country and in California, focused more on men in the teens and 20s and into the 30s. But by the 1930s, that pattern started to change. So by the '40s and '50s, more women were being sterilized.
On what kinds of "mental diseases" were focused on
It's very important to take that terminology with many historic grains of salt. If we go back in time and look at what the terms meant, it often meant people who were not conforming to societal norms, people who were poor, people who lacked education, perhaps didn't speak sufficient English to make it through school, and so on.
But what it meant for those who were enacting the law were people who were determined to have poor IQs, people with certain psychiatric disorders. But generally, often the way it was used was much more as a catch-all category — so people who just didn't fit, kind of like the misfits of society, so to speak. That's the way they looked at them.
Looking back on it, I would say that those who were institutionalized — because many more people where institutionalized than actually sterilized — was because maybe they had a psychiatric condition and they were sent to an institution as was the policy at the time in the mid-20th century. ...
But for the most part, this program of eugenics ... the idea of sterilization was to eradicate certain genes from the population.
On whether anyone among those who were sterilized are still alive
I haven't found anyone who's still alive. I have been contacted by relatives ... people who contacted me whose aunts or uncles were sterilized at some of these institutions. In the recent paper that my team published, we determined through statistical analysis that it is likely that slightly over 800 people, about 500 women and 300 men, are alive today.
Those numbers don't map on to exact people, they don't correspond to a precise person. But what we've done, we've generated the most reliable estimates, and based on that estimate and also looking at the timing, we estimate that the majority of these people were sterilized between 1945 and 1949 and their average age is about 88, so fairly old.
So what we could do is we could go and look at the records. And that's where I'd like to work with the state of California, because we've essentially created a eugenics registry. We can look at the records and identify likely individuals and then reach out and contact them.
I, however, would like to mention that two states that have enacted policies for monetary reparations for sterilization victims — North Carolina and Virginia — the states have to lead in kind of creating a committee and a registry. And because it was the state seeking to provide some type of redress and acknowledge this history, the state was able to actively set up a program and seek out and try to identify individuals. So they would come to the state and they would confirm through documentation that they had been sterilized and then receive recognition and monetary compensation.
On if there are indications that California is interested in compensating victims of sterilization
There's indication that the state is interested in this history and is aware of possibility of sterilization abuse. Just three years ago, news broke that about 150 women in two California women's prisons had been sterilized without proper consent and proper procedure. That resulted in a state audit in the interest of the state legislators and eventually, a law that was unanimously passed, banning sterilizations except under extreme medical circumstances in California state prisons. So this issue is on the radar screen.
It's easy to forget about these patients who were in these remote institutions in the 1940s and '50s in California. However, I think it behooves the state to not forget this history, and all of us to not forget this history. So hopefully, having this fairly solid number that we've generated of an estimate of likely living survivors could help facilitate that process. ...
It would also be a good idea to think about other forms of recognition of this historical injustice. For example, putting up a historical plaque in Sacramento somewhere to recognize those who were sterilized, or at one of the institutions such as the Sonoma State Home or the Patton State Home, making sure this history is included in K-12 curriculum.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
There's a grim chapter in American history that involves forced sterilization. And for much of the last century, California had one of the most active sterilization programs in the country. A state law from 1909 authorized the surgery for people judged to have, quote, "mental disease which may have been inherited." That law remained on the books until 1979. University of Michigan Professor Alexandra Minna Stern has been working to identify people who were forcibly sterilized under California's program.
ALEXANDRA MINNA STERN: Glad to be here.
CHANG: So did you find any patterns among the 20,000 names you discovered?
STERN: We have found a variety of patterns, and we keep discovering more. For example, we have determined that patients with Spanish surnames were much more likely to be sterilized than other patients, demonstrating that there was a racial bias in the sterilization program. One of the interesting things we discovered is that initially more men were sterilized. But by the 1930s, that pattern started to change. So that by the '40s and '50s, more women were being sterilized.
CHANG: So these people that were picked for the sterilization program - they were picked because of so-called, quote, "mental disease which may have been inherited." Can you give us some examples?
STERN: Well, it's very important to take that terminology with many historical grains of salt. It often meant people who were poor, people who lacked education, perhaps didn't speak sufficient English to make it through school and so on. But what it meant for those who were enacting the law were people who were determined to have low IQs, people with certain psychiatric disorders. Often, the way it was used was much more as a catch-all category. For example, young girls who are from broken homes - maybe they'd suffered some abuse in their family - they ended up out in the streets, not going to school. They were picked up by juvenile authorities. They would be sent to a girls' home, and then, eventually, they would be sent to a place like the Sonoma State Home, where they would be sterilized.
CHANG: You've determined there may be more than 800 of these people still alive. Have you found anyone who is still alive?
STERN: I haven't found anyone who's still alive. I have been contacted by relatives, particularly people who contacted me whose aunts or uncles were sterilized at some of these institutions. What we've done is we've generated the most reliable estimate. So what we could do is we could go and look at the records - and that's where I'd like to work with the state of California because what we've essentially created is a eugenics registry - we can look at the records and identify likely individuals and then reach out and contact them.
However, I would like to mention that in the two states that have enacted policies for monetary reparations for sterilization victims, in North Carolina and Virginia, the state took the lead in creating a kind of committee and a registry. And because it was the state seeking to provide some redress and to acknowledge this history, the state was able to actively set up a program and seek out and try to identify individuals. It's not that they should come to me, it's that they should go to the state. But our research can help facilitate that process.
CHANG: Alex Stern is a professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Thanks very much.
STERN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.