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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (ChurchMilitant.com) - California's recent push for reparations to victims of forced sterilization programs is prompting a review of the state's — and the nation's — sordid history of eugenics.
The Golden State is looking to provide approximately $15,000 to people sterilized by the government during the heyday of the eugenics movement that peaked during the 1930s as well as those sterilized in state prisons more recently. State officials are searching for about 600 surviving victims of coerced or forced sterilizations.
Lynda Gledhill, executive officer of the California Victim Compensation Board, is in charge of finding victims and doling out the cash. "We take that mission very seriously to find these folks," Gledhill said. "Nothing we can do can make up for what happened to them."
These words acknowledge not just the current group of victims Gledhill is seeking, but the untold tens of thousands of other victims sterilized throughout the U.S. in the past century for being deemed by government experts as not being smart or fit enough to procreate.
Few may realize that during the late 1800s and early part of the 1900s, the United States became the first country in the world to undertake compulsory sterilization programs for the purpose of eugenics.
Anti-Catholic, progressive forces like the American Eugenics Society (AES) and the American Birth Control League (ABCL) swayed public opinion and government policy toward using sterilization — and abortion — to eliminate what their supporters deemed inferior stock.
One case that reveals the sordid underbelly of public sentiment at the time is that of Carrie Buck.
In Virginia, under the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 — part of the AES and ABCL wave — Buck was sterilized after she was deemed feebleminded (i.e., low IQ) upon becoming pregnant at age 17. She had been raped by the nephew of her foster parents. Her mother had also been diagnosed as feebleminded, based not on any psychological evidence but on a doctor's perception of her sexual behavior.
In 1927, by an 8–1 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld as constitutional Buck's compulsory sterilization. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, weighing in on the decision, said,
It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. … Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
The case lent greater legitimacy to the acceptance of eugenics, and the number of sterilizations increased dramatically throughout the United States during the following decades. A majority of states moved to legalize eugenics programs, many involving forced sterilization.
By one account, more than 60,000 people were sterilized in the United States based on such laws. Most of these operations were performed before the mid-century, targeting people for being "mentally ill" or "mentally deficient."
Most of the women subject to forcible sterilizations were from ethnic minorities, including Native and African Americans. One study showed that 60% of African American women in just one county in Mississippi were involuntarily sterilized. The procedures often took place unbeknownst to them during childbirth.
Fast-forward to California's reparation attempts. One of the victims, Native American Moonlight Pulido, received $15,000 in compensation. She was involuntarily sterilized in 2005 while serving a life sentence for attempted murder. A prison doctor had, unbeknownst to her during a procedure allegedly to remove cancerous growths, removed her uterus and cervix.
"I'm Native American, and we as women, we're grounded to Mother Earth. We're the only life-givers, we're the only ones that can give life, and he stole that blessing from me," Pulido told Fox News. regarding the doctor. "I felt like less than a woman."
California had perhaps the nation's largest forced sterilization program, sterilizing about 20,000 people beginning in 1909. The state repealed its eugenics law in 1979, but people continued to be sterilized without their consent in government prisons and correctional facilities.