A Brief History of California’s Eugenics Program (1909-2013)
By Foundation for Economic Education (FEE)
After decades of forced sterilizations followed by feeble apologies, California is shifting to the endgame of its century-long sterilization program: taxing innocent citizens to pay off its victims.
It is a commonsense view that government spending is generally inefficient compared to spending by private people and businesses. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman famously argued, “Nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own. Nobody uses somebody else’s resources as carefully as he uses his own. So if you want efficiency and effectiveness, if you want knowledge to be properly utilized, you have to do it through the means of private property.”
This point about economic efficiency may be true, but it often lets government officials off the hook far too easy. A chilling example of this is how California is currently dealing with its long history of forcing sterilization on unwilling victims and then legislatively immunizing themselves from responsibility.
If you were a taxpayer in the Golden State as recently as 2010, your earnings probably helped fund the forced sterilizations of hundreds of inmates such as the Native American woman Moonlight Pulido.
“While in prison in 2005, Pulido said a doctor told her he needed to remove two ‘growths’ that could be cancer,” the Associated Press reported earlier this month. “She signed a form and had surgery. Later, something didn’t feel right. She was constantly sweating and not feeling like herself. She asked a nurse, who told her she had had a full hysterectomy, a procedure that removes the uterus and the cervix, and sometimes other parts of the reproductive system.”
“I felt like less than a woman,” Pulido told reporter Adam Beam. “We’re the only life-givers, we’re the only ones that can give life and he stole that blessing from me.”
Pulido was not alone. Other victims of this ghoulish policy shared stories with media, including Kimberly Jeffrey, who recalled resisting a tubal ligation procedure while she was sedated and strapped to an operating table.
“Being treated like I was less than human produced in me a despair,” Jeffrey told NPR.
Kelli Dillon, a former inmate at Central California women’s facility, explained how she found out that her ovaries had been removed in 2001 without her knowledge or consent after she was told surgeons were going to take a biopsy and remove a cyst.
“It was like my life wasn’t worth anything. Somebody felt I had nothing to contribute to the point where they had to find this sneaky and diabolical way to take my ability to have children,” Dillon told the Guardian in 2021.
It was not until years later, while still a member of the California State prison system, that Dillon began to realize other inmates were receiving hysterectomies and sterilization procedures without their knowledge, often after being told the procedures “were necessary to look for cancers or correcting gynecological issues.”
If the perpetrators of these violations were held accountable for their actions, such atrocities would be less likely to happen. But instead of being brought to justice for their malfeasance, the California State government is forcing innocent people to pay the price and getting off virtually scott free themselves. It is this sort of application for the expropriation of funds from private and productive citizens that has allowed governments to terrorize their citizens since time immemorial—a pattern that will have no reason to end until measures have been taken to eliminate the power of governments to enact such cruel legislation.
Timeline: California’s Forced Sterilization
1909: The state government of California created a sterilization program that became the largest eugenics movement in the United States, sterilizing more than 20,000 unwilling victims and also inspiring eugenics practices in Nazi Germany. The practices were carried out in public hospitals and other tax-funded institutions for the disabled and mentally ill, because people with disabilities or mental illnesses were deemed unfit for reproduction.
1927: By now the eugenics movement had become mainstream in the United States. It was widely thought among elite American policymakers that the human population could be improved by coercively preventing the reproduction of disliked demographics such as the disabled, the poor, the “feebleminded,” and even people deemed “sexual deviants” such as rapists, prostitutes, or even women who had sex out of wedlock. California’s constitutional right to continue its eugenics practices was enshrined by the United States Supreme Court in the Buck v. Bell case, in which the right of the state of Virginia to sterilize Carrie Buck (who the state falsely declared “feebleminded”) against her will was upheld—and with it the rights of other state governments to make similar decisions for their inhabitants.
Writing for the majority, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (considered an idol of “progressivism” in his time and still by some today) stated, “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. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.”
And thus, he concluded in a famous line that, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
1968-1974: Although the eugenics movement had peaked in the 1930s, California government officials oversaw continued tax-funded sterilizations into the later half of the 20th century. For example, according to an official document released by Los Angeles County five years ago apologizing for a series of sterilizations county officials had overseen between 1968 and 1974, “Over 200 women who delivered babies at the Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center, the majority of whom were low income and born in Mexico, were possibly coerced into getting postpartum tubal ligations. At least some of the women were not aware they had been sterilized, and only learned that they had lost their reproductive rights during subsequent doctors’ visits. It is significant and necessary to acknowledge the irreparable harm inflicted onto the women who were subjected to these coerced sterilizations at Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center, and to their families.“
1979: California’s eugenics laws were repealed, supposedly ending the practice of state-funded eugenics in CA.
1999 – 2010: California’s eugenics movement was mysteriously revived, but this time under the guise of prison healthcare. According to the Associated Press less than two years ago, “Sterilizations in California prisons appear to date to 1999, when the state changed its policy for unknown reasons to include a sterilization procedure known as “tubal ligation” as part of inmates’ medical care. Over the next decade, women reported they were coerced into this procedure, with some not fully understanding the ramifications.”
2003: While the California government was still funding involuntary sterilizations in their state prisons, California Governor Gray Davis apologized on behalf of “the people of California” for the government’s “past” eugenicist actions. “To the victims and their families of this past injustice, the people of California are deeply sorry for the suffering you endured over the years,” the apology read. “Our hearts are heavy for the pain caused by eugenics. It was a sad and regrettable chapter in the state’s history, and it is one that must never be repeated again.”
2013: The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR, now Reveal) discovered that between 1997 and 2010 California state officials spent at least $147,460 of taxpayer funds to sterilize 148 female inmates. The above-quoted Moonlight Pulido, Kimberly Jeffrey, and Kelli Dillon were just three among them. Many of the records of these sterilizations were “lost or destroyed,” the Associated Press reports. NPR notes that the true number of illicit sterilizations during that period may have been significantly higher than reported, and that the operations appeared to disproportionately target repeat offenders.
The CIR’s claims were denied by the few state officials who commented in this early phase of the scandal. Valley State Prison’s former OB-GYN Dr. James Heinrich claimed that all sterilized inmates had consented to the operations. He even justified this use of tax dollars in a way that seemed to echo Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s disregard for the value of human life back in 1927. “Over a 10-year period, [$147,460] isn’t a huge amount of money compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children — as they procreated more,” Heinrich said according to NPR.
2014: Prompted by the CIR’s findings, auditors conducted their own investigation to confirm or disconfirm the CIR’s claims. “A state audit found 144 women were sterilized between 2005 and 2013 with little or no evidence they were counseled or offered alternative treatments,” the audit found. The auditors’ report, published at www.auditor.ca.gov, found that the misconduct had occurred with the oversight of either the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation or California Correctional Health Care Services.
“This report concludes that during our eight-year audit period, 144 female inmates were sterilized by a procedure known as bilateral tubal ligation, a surgery generally performed for the sole purpose of sterilization,” the auditors wrote.
Later that year, in response to the revelations, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill supposedly written to prohibit future involuntary sterilizations in California prisons. However, as reporting from the Guardian noted, “While the bill passed unanimously, its carefully negotiated language allowed the state to escape further responsibility.”
2021: The California government approved legislation intended to compensate its sterilization victims through tax-funded reparations payments. The program will pay out at least $15,000 to any applicant who can prove to have been one of the victims.
2022-2023: California is searching for the victims that are still alive today, of which there are believed to be more than 600, according to reporting from the Associated Press in 2021 (although many of the victims never knew what was done to them, so it is unclear how they would know to apply for reparations). The government’s search strategy consists of sending posters, flyers, and fact sheets to libraries, prisons, and other establishments across the state, the AP reported this month.
After a year of searching, the government has approved only 51 out of 310 reparations applicants, denied 103 people’s applications, and closed three incomplete applications. According to the AP, “They say it’s difficult to verify the applications as many records have been lost or destroyed.” Therefore, according to Executive Officer of the California Victim Compensation Board Lynda Gledhill, “We try to find all the information we can and sometimes we just have to hope that somebody maybe can find more detailed information on their own. We’re just sometimes not able to verify what happened.”
Of the 51 victims who have been approved for reparations payments, three were sterilized under California’s eugenics laws that were repealed in 1979. The rest were sterilized more recently.
2024: The $4.5 million reparations program, for which an additional $2 million is being spent on advertising, will end.
Any victims still unpaid will have lost their chance to be compensated for the damages to their bodies, sexual identities, human dignity, and potential to pass their genes onto future generations.
Allowing the Unthinkable to Happen
The “public servants” governing California appropriated funds from innocent citizens against their will, used those funds to capture and sterilize involuntary victims, “lost or destroyed” the associated records, passed legislation to protect themselves from responsibility (after being caught), finally decided to pay reparations but passed the cost onto unwilling innocent citizens instead of facing any financial or legal repercussions themselves, and have only paid 51 out of at least 600 living victims now that about half the term of the reparations program has passed.
The above history of self-serving legislation and empty apologies confirms the suspicion common sense should lead us to anyway—namely that California government institutions cannot be trusted to legislatively protect the citizenry from continued atrocities given that the atrocities in question are often perpetrated by the government institutions themselves.
When unjustified coercion is consistently used by a group of people, the way to stop them is to impose costs on the guilty individuals that they themselves must suffer until their transgressions are atoned for. It is good that (albeit grossly inadequate) reparations are being paid, but until the perpetrators of the crimes are the ones to pay the price, the crucial lessons will not be learned and the crucial incentives not imposed.
There are several destructive institutions that allowed these eugenics operations to take place, but among them is the practice of government taxation itself. It allowed the perpetrators to conduct their operations without incurring personal expense, and through taxation the innocent many are now being scapegoated to protect the guilty few from what punishments they might otherwise be forced by the outrage of the public to endure.
If the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity aren’t going to be jailed for life or otherwise severely punished as any private citizen likely would for committing the same offenses, then at the very least the citizens who involuntarily pay their salaries and fund the programs of their twisted imaginations could be struggling to end the forced involvement of the citizenry that finances such programs with their tax payments.
If your tax dollars were spent solely to improve the health, education, and protection from violence of your fellow countrymen, instead of often funding the exact opposite of all these things as has been the case in California, then opposing the predation of tax collectors would not be quite so urgent. But in the real world, those malevolent enough (or those sufficiently under the sway of malevolent ideas) to think they should get to spend your money against your will often turn out to be malevolent in many other ways as well.
There are plenty of reasons one might struggle against government taxation. Perhaps you’re a poor or middle-class laborer at pains to afford your childrens’ education. Perhaps you’re a visionary entrepreneur trying to fund some world-changing new technological or medical research.
But at least as good a reason as any to oppose your wealth being confiscated is to prevent institutions such as the California State government from spending another dime on their campaigns of terror and reproductive destruction.
Saul Zimet is a Website and Data Coordinator for HumanProgress.org at the Cato Institute and a graduate student in economics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.
EDITORS NOTE: This FEE column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.
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