Leonard Bisel was 15 when the state of California decided that he should not have children, threatening to lock him up and force him to do hard labor if he did not submit to sterilization.
In the middle of his operation, recalled Bisel, now 88, he woke up. “It was really painful,” he said, “and the doctor told me to shut up.”
Under the influence of a movement known as eugenics, whose supporters believed that those with physical disabilities, psychiatric disorders and other conditions were “genetically defective,” more than 60,000 people across the United States were forcibly sterilized by state-run programs throughout the 20th century.
They included more than 20,000 people over seven decades in California, under a eugenics law enacted in 1909. Almost all of the state’s procedures were performed through institutions, like the one where Bisel lived, and none were legally required to have the patient’s consent. Some of those sterilized were as young as 11.
Even after California repealed its eugenics law in 1979, it continued to sterilize women in prison, sometimes without ensuring that their consent was lawfully obtained, according to a 2014 state report that followed an exposé by the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Now, under a budget passed by the Legislature and awaiting the governor’s approval, California is prepared to spend $7.5 million to find and pay an estimated 600 surviving victims of coerced sterilization, both under the eugenics law and in prison, an estimated $25,000 each.
The move follows similar efforts in Virginia and North Carolina to compensate victims of the eugenics movement, which peaked in the United States in the early 20th century and inspired similar practices in Nazi Germany. Thirty-two states had some sort of federally funded program that forcibly sterilized immigrants, people of color, those with disabilities and others labeled “undesirable,” under the guise of public health.
Nationwide support for reparations to descendants of enslaved people has grown in recent years, including in California, where an effort is underway to develop proposals for compensating Black residents for centuries of systemic discrimination and inequality. Reparations to victims of involuntary sterilization is seen by some advocates as a similar first step in acknowledging the country’s long history of discrimination against people with disabilities.
“There still is a great amount of prejudice against people with disabilities and assumptions that they are, in the most extreme form, not worthy of life, not worthy of being born and certainly not worthy of parenting,” said Alexandra Minna Stern, a University of Michigan professor who is an expert on eugenics and reproductive rights.
Not everyone who was forcibly sterilized under California’s program had a disability. The vast majority were poor, and many were wards of the state from so-called “broken homes.” Many had suffered previous abuse, and many were Black, Latino, Asian American or Native American.
Bisel ended up in an institution called the Sonoma State Home in Eldridge, California, after his father died; his mother had been previously institutionalized and was unable to take care of him. He said he felt he had no choice but to submit to sterilization. On his medical forms, he was labeled “dull.”
Records show that Bisel’s mother was also sterilized at the same institution.
“You just feel like nothing,” he said. “You’re not worth anything.”
Bisel now lives in Selah, Washington. He married, adopted two daughters and now has six grandchildren. Under California’s reparations proposal, he would need to apply and be approved for the money. Victims would have two years to come forward.
Similar programs in other states have had a tough time distributing money, in part because many victims have died or have been difficult to track down. To try to overcome that obstacle, part of the California budget proposal would provide the state’s Victim Compensation Board with $2 million for outreach and collaboration with social justice organizations.
“The real shame to me is that politicians and the public dragged their feet for decades in addressing this issue,” said Paul Lombardo, a law professor at Georgia State University who has studied the eugenics movement, “and now most of the people who would have benefited are dead.”
Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, a Democrat from Los Angeles, who supported the reparations proposal, said she plans to seek justice for other victims of systemic abuses — including those who were forcibly sterilized in settings not run by the state, such as county hospitals or federal detention facilities. Many of those victims in California were Latina.
“It’s incredibly upsetting, especially because these women could be my grandmother, they could be my mom, they could be my neighbor,” said Carillo, who identifies as Mexican and Salvadoran.
In North Carolina, the first state to pay reparations for its decadeslong eugenics program, a significant number of forcibly sterilized people were Black women like Elaine Riddick, now 67. She was 13 when she was raped, she said, and at 14, as she gave birth to her son, the state sterilized her without her knowledge. In the paperwork, she was called “feeble minded.”
She did not find out until she was older, married and trying to get pregnant.
“That’s a very painful thing to find out that your government allowed this to happen to you,” Riddick said. “For them to go inside of you and wreck the inside of your body at such a young, tender age. My body wasn’t even developed.”
She eventually received close to $50,000 from North Carolina’s reparations program, she said. But she added that she would rather have had more children.
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