California’s heinous sterilization program

Photo of Mary Franco, deceased sterilization victim

U.S. prisons are notorious for being concentration camps for workers and the poor, including hugely disproportionate numbers of Black, Latinx and Indigenous people. Rich people rarely see the inside of these camps where torture and inhumane neglect work hand in hand.

One of the most egregious and brutal aspects of the U.S. prison system has been the forced sterilization of women for so-called scientific exploration.

The Guardian reported on Jan. 5 that at least 600 known women in California prisons had been given full hysterectomies, either against their will or without their knowledge. The largest number was during the height of the eugenics movement in the 1930s, with a smaller number of women sterilized over the past decade.

Eugenics was a dehumanizing pseudoscientific movement, spurred on by racist doctors who used enslaved African women as guinea pigs. Doctors altered or completely destroyed their reproductive systems by surgery without anesthesia, justifying their actions by the white-supremacist theory of “racial improvement” and “planned breeding.”

Doctors in Puerto Rico, still a U.S. colony, during the 1930s falsely pushed women into sterilizations as the only means of contraception. Between 1947-1948, 7% of Puerto Rican women were sterilized; and by 1956, one out of three women suffered the same fate. (

During the same period, the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” from 1932 until 1972 took place when Black men were infected with syphilis, a contagious venereal disease, when there was no cure, to “study” the effects of the untreated disease. After penicillin became widely used to treat syphilis, the men were still denied treatment. So many, including those in prison, suffered slow, painful, needless deaths.

A little known reparations program

Now the state of California is offering those who were sterilized a $15,000 payment as reparations for this heinous crime against humanity, conducted throughout the state prison system, one of the largest in the world. The problem is that those who are eligible for this payment are either dead, are disqualified by narrow rules and regulations or are not aware that the offer exists.

According to The Guardian, “The state has approved just 51 people for payments out of 310 applications. There is one year left to look before the $4.5 million program shuts down, and the challenges remain steep. State officials have denied 103 people, closed three incomplete applications and are processing 153 others — but they say it is difficult to verify the applications, as many records have been lost or destroyed.” Just three of those approved are in their 80s or 90s.

The article goes on to say: “A state audit found 144 women were sterilized between 2005 and 2013 with little or no evidence they were counseled or offered alternative treatments. State lawmakers responded by passing a law in 2014 to ban sterilizations in prison for birth control purposes, while still allowing for other medically necessary procedures.”

California sterilized 20,000 people with mental health or physical disabilities, starting in 1909 until 1979, when the state’s eugenics law was repealed. It was the largest such program in the country. These experiments reportedly inspired the Nazis to begin their own eugenics movement.

Moonlight Pulido, an Indigenous woman, was sterilized in 2005 without her knowledge while serving a life sentence. The doctor told her that he was removing two cancerous growths that could have been malignant. This explanation was the basis for her giving her consent for the operation. Her reaction to being sterilized was one of shock and grief.

She stated, “I’m Native American, and we as women, we’re grounded to Mother Earth. We’re the only life-givers; we’re the only ones that can give life, and he stole that blessing from me. I felt like less than a woman.”

She stated that getting the $15,000 in reparations was the most money she had ever had. She may be eligible for more funds, depending on how much of the $4.5 million for the program is left once the deadline comes and goes.

Of course, no amount of payment can ever restore what was stolen from those who were sterilized — the right to control their reproductive system.

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