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Arcadia resident Mary Franco was in her first year of middle school in 1934 when she was forcibly removed from her home and institutionalized. Her parents didn’t know it at the time, but by committing her to a state hospital in Pomona, they were also signing away her reproductive rights to the state of California.
She was 13, alone and confused. She would never have children.
“She did know she was sterilized and she blamed her family for it,” said Stacy Cordova Diaz, Franco’s niece. “It was a super shameful thing that really tore the family apart.”
For 70 years, forced sterilizations were routinely performed in California’s state-run hospitals, homes and institutions on tens of thousands of individuals like Franco, who were deemed “feeble-minded,” “sexually deviant” or “undesirable.” The state’s 1909 eugenics law and subsequent sterilizations — which were based on the idea that selective breeding would lead to a stronger society — disproportionately targeted people of color and those with disabilities or mental illness. Proponents claimed the procedure was necessary to improve the outcome of the human race. But for many victims and their families, the trauma stemming from the practice continues to be felt across generations.
The state’s eugenics law was repealed in 1979 and decades later, California is aiming to rectify its troubled past by compensating remaining survivors who were involuntarily sterilized. As of Jan. 1, survivors are now eligible to apply for financial reparations as part of a $7.5 million state program. The state estimates that about 600 survivors of forced sterilization are still alive today and eligible for compensation.
It’s a victory many advocates say is a first step toward seeking justice and acknowledging the country’s history of discrimination against immigrants, people of color, the poor and those with disabilities.
“This will never undo the damage that was done to those that were nonconsensually sterilized and have had their reproductive freedom taken from them,” said Alexandra Stern, who is the founder and co-director of the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “However, it is an important symbolic and material step in recognizing the harm that was done to them by the state.”
California Latinas were at greater risk of sterilization
California, a leading force in the 20th century eugenics movement, began sterilizing people in 1909 and became the state accounting for a third of all sterilizations performed in the U.S., according to a 2017 study published by Stern, of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in the American Journal of Public Health. Despite the law being repealed in 1979, the state continued to sterilize female inmates until 2013.
Latinos were overrepresented among California’s sterilizations.
Latinas were at a 59% greater risk of being sterilized than non-Latinas between 1919 and 1952, while Latinos were 23% more likely to be sterilized than non-Latinos, according to a separate 2018 study published by the University of Michigan’s Stern in the American Journal of Public Health.
Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, D-Los Angeles, first introduced the compensation program as AB 1007 in 2021 and advocated for it to be included in the state budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year.
The state will use $2 million for administration and outreach and $1 million to create memorial sites for the victims. The remaining $4.5 million will be split among all eligible individuals who apply.
The program allows survivors to receive up to $25,000 and requires the California Victims Compensation Board to conduct outreach to people, including female inmates, who may have been sterilized. Relatives are not eligible for compensation or to receive funds on behalf of a survivor. Applications will be accepted through Dec. 31, 2023.
California is the third state, followed by North Carolina and Virginia, to implement a reparations program.
Laura Jimenez, executive director of the statewide advocacy organization California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, said the reparations program is part of a wider educational effort to inform the public about a dark chapter in California’s history.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Jimenez said. “Having children is really one of the most important rights that we have in terms of our own bodily autonomy.”
For those who underwent such procedures, the program also serves as a reminder that what was done to them was wrong and unethical, she said.
“Money does not return that right to them and it’s not going to change the course of their lives,” Jimenez said. “But it is a symbol of a wrong being done and an attempt to correct that wrong.”
California survivors of sterilization eligible for compensation
Franco, who died in 1998, was deemed “sexually deviant” while admitted at the Pacific Colony State Hospital in Pomona. California opened the hospital in 1927 to detain “feebleminded” people, The Sacramento Bee reported, citing records from the Department of Developmental Services.
Franco’s immigrant parents, who were both from a small town near Aguascalientes, Mexico, had her institutionalized when they found out she was being molested by a neighbor, Cordova Diaz said. For Franco’s parents, the institution was the only solution they could think of to keep her away from her abuser and protect the family’s reputation.
Her family’s decision would leave a stain on Franco’s life and cause deep divisions between her and her siblings. She never forgave her parents or siblings for taking her to the institution, Cordova Diaz said, and felt lonely and a deep longing for a family of her own her entire life. Franco married when she was about 18, but her husband left her within a few months after she disclosed that she couldn’t have children.
“She never felt that she could truly be loved because she couldn’t give anybody a child,” Cordova Diaz said. “It was horrendous that her family had done this to her.”
Today, many people are still unaware they may be victims of forced sterilizations and many existing survivors are elderly or aging, said Carly A. Myers, a staff attorney at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, an organization that has long advocated for the state reparations program. That’s why the outreach and advocacy component of the program is so important, she said.
“All people were sterilized without their consent, but some were sterilized without their knowledge,” she said. “What we’re really focused on right now is getting as much awareness as possible of the existence of the program. We would love to reach as many as we can.”
For Cordova Diaz, who is a teacher for children with special needs, her aunt’s story has left a deep impression. She works with kids who have disabilities and can’t imagine what would’ve happened to them during the eugenics era, she said. She also resonates with her aunt’s experience because she was unmarried when she had a child at the age of 15, which she said would have classified her as a “sexual deviant.”
She said state-sanctioned sterilizations were “horrible” and “heinous” forms of abuse. The effects of that “discriminatory and racist” ideology can still be felt today in discussions about poverty, immigration and race, she added. Though Cordova Diaz won’t qualify for the funds on behalf of her aunt, she hopes the new program will help elevate the voices of survivors and educate the public about the state’s former widespread use of forced sterilizations.
“This has had a huge emotional impact on me,” Cordova Diaz said. “We really need to look at our thinking and we really need to look at history because no one deserves to have had this done to them.”
Survivors who are eligible for California’s Forced or Involuntary Sterilization Compensation Program can apply at www.victims.ca.gov/fiscp or contact CalVCB at 800-777-9229 or firstname.lastname@example.org to obtain an application.