Expert Commentary

Forced sterilization in California targeted Latina women

California’s eugenic sterilization program disproportionately targeted Latinos, and especially Latina women, new research finds.

poster against forced sterilization
Poster for a 1971 rally against forced sterilization in San Francisco, CA designed by Rachael Romero. (Library of Congress)

California’s eugenic sterilization program disproportionately targeted Latinos — especially Latina women, who had a 59 percent higher risk of forced sterilization than women of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, new research finds.

The practice was abolished in 1979, but during the 70 years that eugenics laws stood in the state, over 20,000 people of various races and ethnicities were sterilized. The California State Legislature is currently considering legislation that would compensate survivors of forced sterilization. In 2014, North Carolina began compensating survivors of the state’s eugenics program.

California and North Carolina were part of a broader national trend in the 20th century; 32 states passed legislation sanctioning the sterilization of individuals considered “unfit” to reproduce.

In California, the first of such laws was passed in 1909. The law authorized medical superintendents in state hospitals and prisons to sterilize patients if they considered the procedure to be “beneficial and conducive to the benefit of the physical, mental or moral condition.” A new sterilization law took its place in 1913 and introduced an explicit element of eugenics, as the statute cited hereditary conditions as grounds for the practice.

Researchers from the University of Michigan and University of Illinois note that these laws were often used against people of color. They write, “Biases against Mexicans and Mexican Americans were especially prominent: institutional authorities described Mexicans and their descendants as ‘immigrants of an undesirable type’ and speculated that they were at a ‘lower racial level’ than is found among American Whites.” To quantify this bias they looked at over 17,000 forms from the state of California between 1920 and 1945 that recommended patients be sterilized.

The authors note that while recommendations are not definitive proof of sterilization, this process was “the primary mechanism through which compulsory sterilizations were authorized in institutions.” They identified latino patients through Spanish surnames — an imperfect measure of racial/ethnic background, they note, but sterilization forms did not reliably collect this information. Then the researchers analyzed sterilization data according to age, gender and surname.

They found:

  • For the entirety of the law’s existence, Latinos were at the highest risk of sterilization.
  • Latino men had a 23 percent higher risk of sterilization than non-Latino men; Latinas had a 59 percent higher risk of sterilization than women from other racial and ethnic groups.
  • Between 1920 and 1926, men had higher sterilization rates than women; after 1926, this flipped.
  • “Eugenic thinking inscribed ‘scientific’ legitimacy to racial stereotypes of Latinas/os as inferior and unfit to reproduce,” the authors write. They add that eugenic sterilization provides context for contemporary issues of discrimination and bias in health care.

Looking for more research? We have resources on immigration and current issues relating to fertility and health among Hispanics in America.

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