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PD Editorial: California’s shameful history of forced sterilization

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

Staff Writer Phil Barber’s startling account of thousands of forced sterilizations at the Sonoma Developmental Center documents a brutal chapter in California history.

Beginning in the early 20th century, state law authorized involuntary sterilization of men and women — and, in practice, even children as young as 7 years old — deemed unfit to have children.

Before the law was finally repealed, about 20,000 people were sterilized.

More than a quarter of those procedures occurred at the Sonoma Developmental Center, a bucolic campus in rural Eldridge that was supposed to provide refuge for some of California’s most vulnerable residents. Instead, it became an industrial surgical center where many residents were mutilated.

“Available evidence suggests Sonoma was the busiest of America’s institutional sterilization centers, and possibly the world’s,” Barber wrote in an article on Sunday’s front page.

California allowed forced sterilization of the “feebleminded” and others considered unfit for parenthood. The practice was called “eugenics,” a pseudoscience whose proponents believed the human race could be improved by sterilizing people with mental illnesses, physical disabilities, epilepsy and other “undesirable” traits.

California’s elastic standard provided the necessary cover for medical officials to use ill-defined and arbitrary findings such as “criminal tendencies,” “sexual promiscuity” or “sexual deviance” as justification for sterilization. Some victims were simply social outcasts. A disproportionate number were women, poor people and minorities.

The state outlawed involuntary sterilization in 1979 in response to a class-action lawsuit, but the abominable practice continued for another decade in women’s prisons.

The developmental center closed in 2018, but some of the victims are still living.

No apology could ever be adequate for the grievous injuries suffered by thousands of marginalized people. Money won’t heal these wounds, either, and many, perhaps most, of the victims are now dead. Reparations are nonetheless long overdue.

Just this year, California finally budgeted $7.5 million for payments of up to $25,000 each, making this the third state to offer compensation to victims of forced sterilization.

The Disability Social History Project, an organization based in Humboldt County, is urging the state to establish a memorial to eugenics victim at the Sonoma Developmental Center and to preserve one of the buildings as a library and museum showcasing the history of institutionalization, the shift to community care and the disability rights movement.

That would be a fitting tribute, along with the memorial wall planned for the 1,400 residents interred in unmarked graves on the grounds of the developmental center. This dark — and not so distant — period also needs to be taught as part of California and world history.

The eugenics movement is associated with the Nazi Party in Germany, but it had prominent adherents in the United States, including President Theodore Roosevelt, inventor Alexander Graham Bell and, in Sonoma County, botanist Luther Burbank and Fred Butler, the longtime medical superintendent who ordered thousands of sterilizations at what was then known as the Sonoma State Home — and only regretted that he couldn’t manage even more.

Eugenics was routine and accepted not so long ago, in California and elsewhere. Telling the victims’ stories, as Barber has done for some people here in Sonoma County, might help ensure that colossal wrong never happens again.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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