After California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill Monday night that includes the long-awaited legislation, survivors of a state-sponsored eugenics program that enforced coercive or involuntary sterilizations would receive reparations.
The bill will pay survivors who were sterilized as a result of a state-sanctioned eugenics policy that was in place from 1909 to 1979.
On July 12, Newsom signed a budget agreement that included The Forced or Involuntary Sterilization Compensation Program. The $7.5 million fund would also compensate anyone who was subjected to forced sterilization in jail after 1979.
Eugenicists employed forced sterilization to “breed out” undesirable features through operations that disproportionately targeted minorities, the poor, those with physical disabilities, and those judged mentally incompetent, preventing them from bearing children. Although the sterilization procedure, which was largely carried out against women, remained in the United States for the bulk of the twentieth century, the field of eugenics is now discredited.
By 1964, California had sterilized 20,108 persons, making it the state with the largest number of sterilizations in the US. 70,000 people were forcibly sterilized in the United States throughout the 1900s and 32 states had some sort of government-supported sterilization program for “undesirables.” While Black people made up only 1% of California’s population at the time, they were responsible for 4% of sterilizations.
Nearly all of the sterilizations were carried out without the consent of the patients, and procedures were carried out on minors as young as 11 years old.
California will give up to 600 survivors $25,000 in damages under the new legislation. The bill also allocates $2 million to the Victim Compensation Board for community outreach and social justice projects, as well as funds to locate surviving victims. Those who were sterilized forcibly in Virginia and North Carolina have already begun receiving compensation.
In North Carolina, Black women made up a major portion of those who were forcefully sterilized. Elaine Riddick, now 67, was raped when she was 13 and sterilized after giving birth to her son at the age of 14. She was never told she had been sterilized and didn’t find out until she was married and trying to start a family years later. She was labeled as “feeble-minded” in the paperwork.
“Finding out that your government permitted this to happen to you is a really unpleasant thing,” Riddick told The New York Times. “Going inside of you and wrecking the insides of your body at such an early age. My body had not even begun to develop.”
Some regard the measures as a significant step toward the United States admitting its history of disability discrimination.
“There is still a lot of discrimination against individuals with impairments, and ideas that they are not worthy of life, not worthy of being born, and certainly not worthy of parenting,” said Alexandra Minna Stern, an expert on eugenics and reproductive rights at the University of Michigan.
Others, though, argue that the legislation is too late. After politicians and members of the public “dragged their feet for decades” in addressing the issue, Paul A. Lombardo, a law professor at Georgia State University who has studied the eugenics movement, told The New York Times that “most of the people who might have benefited are dead.”