Sterilization

Stockton Hospital

Stockton State Hospital, opened in 1852, is California's oldest state psychiatric institution. In the late 1920s, the superintendent at Stockton wrote a letter to the Department of Institutions with a sentence that, according to an essay written by Joel T. Braslow, said something along the lines of, “As this patient is suffering from a mental disease which may have been inherited, and which may be transmitted to posterity, I recommend that the operation for sterilization be done." Once sterilization was approved and encouraged by the Department, it became less of an unethical solution to the problem of the feebleminded and seen more a legitimate therapy. The mass sterilization that this allowed for lead the Stockton State Hospital to becoming the leaders of eugenics in California by the 1920s by accounting for more than 40% of all Sterealizations that had occured in the state to that date.

Questions to Consider

  • What laws enabled the sterilization California?

  • Why were low income women and women of color the most targeted both inside and outside the prison system?

Sonoma State Home

    The Sonoma State Home, founded in 1884, was a state hospital that opened with the vision to educate mentally disabled children. Albeit the Home’s founding mission of education, it became one of the primary sterilization institutions in California and set a standard for all other hospitals, colonies and homes. The vision of the hospital quickly changed to focus on the sterilization of women who were considered “sexually deviant,” and became a leading model for sterilization. However, the definition of “sexually deviant” encompassed everything from having sex outside of a marriage to simply having intense sexual urges. Since this was viewed as a mental disability, it allowed Sonoma to operate an overly-aggressive sterilization model. In an attempt to increase the institution’s effectiveness, Sonoma began admitting patients solely for the purpose to be sterilized and then released. By 1942, on record, the Sonoma State Home was said to have sterilized more “mental defectives” than any other institution in the world.

Sterilization in California Prisons

    As mentioned earlier, the Buck v. Bell case legalized forced sterilizations in Virginia, and this decision expedited the legalization process in other states around the county. In California, however, the Buck v. Bell provided the justification and legalization of the forced sterilization of inmates that had been occurring since 1909. Approximately 20,000 forced sterilizations took place legally between 1909 and 1979, accounting for more than a third of all sterilizations in the United States throughout the 20th century. Involuntary sterilization was framed as both a public health strategy and a service to those women undergoing the treatment. California’s 1913 law called for the “asexualization” of prisoners when “it will be beneficial and conducive to the benefit of the physical, mental, or moral condition of any recidivist.” Similarly, CIR reports that the top medical manager at an offending California prison characterized the sterilizations occurring there as “an empowerment issue for female inmates, providing them the same options as women on the outside.” Those deemed “unfit” were predominantly low income women and women of color.  In 2003, California governor Gray Davis issued an apology for the state’s past eugenics laws, stating, “it was a sad and regrettable chapter in the state’s history, and it is one that must never be repeated again.” California’s Eugenics history did not end with the formal apology in 2003. In 2010 it was discovered that nearly 150 female inmates had been sterilized in California prisons since 2006. Governor Jerry Brown and the California State Senate and State Assembly passed Senate Bill 1135 which prohibits sterilization as a form of birth control except for certain medical emergencies.

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