By Aminah Elster
April 2, 2021
Between 1909 and 1979, California forcibly sterilized over 20,000 people of color, people with disabilities and imprisoned people. Based on white supremacist eugenics laws and ableist conceptions of who was “unfit to reproduce,” people with disabilities and women of color suffered forced sterilization. While the state’s eugenics laws were officially repealed in 1979, advocates working in California’s women’s prisons in the early 2000s uncovered continued coercive sterilizations occurring inside the prisons which targeted women and transgender and gender-nonconforming people of color.
For the third year in a row, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners is co-sponsoring legislation, AB 1007, introduced by Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, to provide compensation and reparations to survivors of forced sterilizations in the women’s prisons. The two other co-sponsors are California Latinas for Reproductive Justice and Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. This important legislation has failed to win budgetary approval in the past. This year, we are hopeful that with increased public awareness and pressure, California will finally be held accountable for this horrific form of racist and gendered state violence.
A state audit conducted in 2013 found that over 144 sterilizations were performed without consent and often without knowledge during labor and delivery or other abdominal surgeries. Independent journalistic investigations indicate that the actual number is much higher. Many incarcerated people were never even notified that sterilization was performed, even though the government audit contained that information. In 2014, the legislature passed SB 1135 prohibiting sterilization inside prisons for the purpose of birth control going forward. Yet the state has never been held accountable for the irreparable harm it has caused to the people who endured the sterilizations.
AB 1007 would establish the Forced Sterilization Compensation Program to provide reparations to survivors of forced sterilization under California’s eugenics laws from 1909 to 1979 and to survivors of involuntary sterilizations in women’s state prisons after 1979. Additionally, an outreach and sterilization notification program would be established, and markers or plaques would be placed at designated sites, raising awareness of the sterilization of thousands of people.
Events in the past six months have shed light on the racist and gendered violence of sterilization in carceral settings, exposing the critical need for reparations. A powerful new film, “Belly of the Beast,” has become an important part of the effort to build public awareness about the history of abuse inside women’s prisons. The film, directed by Erika Cohn, follows Kelli Dillon, a survivor of forced sterilization at Valley State Prison for Women and current Director of Back To The Basics, and radical movement lawyer Cynthia Chandler, a co-founder of the advocacy group Justice Now, as they uncover the pattern of forced sterilizations in the women’s prisons. The film premiered in fall 2020 and has been educating audiences around the country, including California legislators, about the racist and sexist realities of sterilization abuse inside prisons. The film and its team are an integral part of the advocacy for reparations for forced sterilization survivors.
In September 2020, Dawn Wooten, a nurse at the Irwin U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Detention Center in Georgia filed a whistleblower complaint, accusing doctors working for the detention center of performing unnecessary mass hysterectomies on immigrant women at the detention center while denying them necessary health care. Her report and the subsequent investigations into medical practices at Irwin, which is run by the LaSalle Corrections, once again exposed reproductive violence against people in carceral settings.
Black activist and scholar Loretta Ross uses the term reprocide to name reproductive violence as a form of genocide against Black and Brown peoples. In many ways, mass incarceration itself is a form of reprocide because it removes tens of thousands of Black and Brown women and other people of color from their communities during their reproductive years. During the pandemic, incarceration has become a death sentence for many of the people inside prisons and detention centers, since people in prison are dying at disproportionately high rates from COVID-19. Monetary compensation cannot adequately address the harms suffered by sterilization survivors, but it is a material acknowledgment of a horrific past that will also deter future eugenic abuses. Reparations are one way to demand accountability and send a message that reproductive violence and reprocide will not be tolerated!
The revelations at Irwin and the premiere of the film came after the California legislature failed to pass reparations and compensation for survivors of sterilization abuse. Since then nearly 14,000 people have signed a petition calling on California legislators and California Gov. Gavin Newsom to enact reparations for forced sterilization survivors. Assemblywoman Carrillo is championing AB 1007 and support letters for the bill are coming in from dozens of organizations around the state. On April 6, there will be a hearing of the Assembly Public Safety Committee regarding AB 1007. We are confident that this will be the year to pass this significant bill!
To support reparations for California forced sterilization survivors you can sign the petition. You can sign up for updates about AB 1007 by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. AB 1007 will be heard in the Assembly Public Safety Committee on Tuesday, April 6 at 1:30 pm PDT. If you’re interested in tuning in for the hearing, or calling in with your support, AB 1007 will be the 4th item on the agenda.
Aminah Elster is the Campaign and Policy Coordinator for California Coalition for Women Prisoners.