A Long-Lost Data Trove Uncovers California’s Sterilization Program

Sarah Zhang, The Atlantic, January 3, 2017

In 2007, only after historian Alexandra Minna Stern had spent years researching eugenics in the American west, culminating in a published book, did she find the mother lode.

During the height of the eugenics movement, California sterilized 20,000 patients deemed feeble-minded or insane. Stern, who is a professor at the University of Michigan, wrote about the sterilization program in her book, but she had only a patchwork of records to work with.

One day in 2007, a secretary pointed her toward a neglected filing cabinet at the state department of mental health’s office in Sacramento. Inside were 19 reels of coiled microfilm, containing sterilization recommendation forms with the names, ages, family histories, and diagnoses of nearly 20,000 patients. These forgotten records covered patients recommended for sterilization at California state hospitals from 1919 to 1952. “The microfilm was in very good shape,” says Stern. “I don’t think anyone had looked at it since the 70s.”

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Recently, Stern co-authored a paper estimating that as many as 831 of the patients sterilized are still alive. The paper, she hopes, will spark conversations about compensating those forcibly sterilized, like North Carolina and Virginia have done. {snip}

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California became the third state to pass a sterilization law in 1909. The law allowed superintendents at state psychiatric institutions to sterilize patients to improve their “physical, mental, or moral condition.” The wording was vague, and it could be applied to patients considered mentally ill, handicapped, sexually deviant, criminal—anyone considered a misfit, really.  {snip}

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Here are some of their stories, as previously written by Stern:

In 1943, a 15-year-old Mexican-American boy we will call Roberto was committed to the Sonoma State Home, an institution for the “feebleminded” in Northern California. Roberto’s journey to Sonoma began the previous year when he was picked up by the Santa Barbara Police for a string of infractions that included intoxication, a knife fight, and involvement with a “local gang of marauding Mexicans.” Citing his record of delinquency and “borderline” IQ score of 75, the officials at Sonoma recommended that Roberto be sterilized. Roberto’s father adamantly, and unsuccessfully, opposed his son’s sterilization, and went so far as to secure a priest to protest the operation.

Or the story of a young Mexican-American woman:

Silvia, a Mexican-American mother of a toddler, was 20 years old when she was placed in Pacific Colony in 1950. She was assessed with an “imbecile” IQ of 35 and reportedly had been raised in a violent home. Silvia’s mother ostensibly could not control her daughter and approved her sterilization.

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{snip} The team ended up using Spanish surnames as a proxy for Hispanic ethnicity, despite the imperfect correlation. (Filipinos, for example, also have Spanish surnames.) Eventually, they found that patients with Spanish surnames were indeed two-and-a-half times as likely to be sterilized than those without.

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