Survivors of California’s forced sterilizations: ‘It’s like my life wasn’t worth anything’
July 19, 2021
It wasn’t until years after Kelli Dillon went into surgery while incarcerated in the California state prison system that she realized her reproductive capacity had been stripped away without her knowledge.
In 2001, at the age of 24, she became one of the most recent victims in a history of forced sterilizations in California that stretches back to 1909 and served as an inspiration for Nazi Germany’s eugenics program.
But now, under new provisions signed into California’s budget this week, the state will offer reparations for the thousands of people who were sterilized in California institutions, without adequate consent, often because they were deemed “criminal”, “feeble-minded” or “deviant”.
The program will be the first in the nation to provide compensation to modern-day survivors of prison system sterilizations, like Dillon, whose attorney obtained medical records to show that, while she was an inmate in the Central California women’s facility in Chowchilla, surgeons had removed her ovaries during what was supposed to be an operation to take a biopsy and remove a cyst.
The investigations sparked by her case, which is featured in the documentary Belly of the Beast, showed hundreds of inmates had been sterilized in prisons without proper consent as late as 2010, even though the practice was by then illegal.
The new California reparations program will also seek to compensate hundreds of living survivors of the state’s earlier eugenics campaign, which was first codified into state law in 1909 and wasn’t repealed until 1979.
That law allowed state authorities to sterilize people in state-run institutions, who were deemed to have “mental disease which may have been inherited” and was “likely to be transmitted to descendants”. The law was later greatly expanded to include “those suffering from perversion or marked departures from normal mentality”. Those targeted were often Black or Latina women, though some men were sterilized as well.
“California established these egregious eugenics laws, that were actually even followed by Hitler himself, in an effort to curb the population of unwanted individuals or people with disabilities,” said the state assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, who introduced the bill to create the compensation program.
Wendy Carrillo introduced the bill to create the compensation program. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP
She said, in all, more than 20,000 people were sterilized in California, including the historic cases prior to 1979 and hundreds of additional cases in the prisons documented until 2010. Many of the historical survivors have since died, but the state believes about 400 are still living, about a quarter of whom are expected to apply for compensation.
“No monetary compensation will ever rectify the injustice of this,” said Carrillo. “But there is a level of dignity that is bestowed on the survivors by the [state’s] acknowledgment that this happened. If we don’t do this now, when will we?”
She hopes that each qualified applicant to the program will get about $25,000 starting in 2022.
‘Saturated with racism, sexism and prejudice’
The state follows North Carolina and Virginia in developing programs to provide compensation for sterilizations that took place in the state-sanctioned eugenics programs of the mid 1900s, but California is the first to recognize and attempt to atone for much more recent cases in the prisons. Three previous attempts to create a reparations program have failed to make it through the California legislature.
From its outset at the turn of the 20th century, the state’s eugenics campaign was steeped in the kind of racist thinking that would eventually lead to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, said Alexandra Minna Stern, a University of Michigan historian who first uncovered file cabinets filled with medical records of early California victims in 2007 in the course of researching a book on American eugenics.
“A lot of this came out as ideas of using science for the common good, human improvement, race improvement,” she said. “Of course, all that was saturated with the racism, sexism and disability prejudices of the era.”
One well-documented victim was Andrea Garcia, a 19-year-old born in Mexico, who was sterilized in 1941 under the orders of an asylum near Los Angeles for those “afflicted with feeblemindedness”. Staff there decided she shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce because she was a “mentally deficient, sex delinquent girl” from an “unfit home”, according a dissertation by Natalie Lira, a University of Michigan researcher who reviewed historic medical documents of the sterilizations uncovered by Stern.
Garcia’s mother went to court to challenge the sterilization policy, but lost her case. Both mother and daughter have since died.
Stacy Cordova, whose aunt was a victim of California’s forced sterilization program that began in 1909, holds a framed photo of her aunt Mary Franco, who was sterilised in the 1930s. Photograph: Jae C Hong/AP
Lira also outlined the case of 14-year-old Antonio Duran, who was sterilized in 1939, after being charged with burglary and painted as a criminal for entering a house and taking several items. The sterilization requests described him as “high tempered, unreliable, an habitual truant and a bully” and said his parents were “of low-grade Mexican mentality”.
Stern said this kind of egregious thinking wasn’t wiped out when California finally took the eugenics law off its books in 1979, around the time it also began closing the state institutions that for decades had warehoused people with mental illness and those deemed unfit for society.
She said she believes it is no coincidence that this is the same time period when the state’s prison population began to explode in an unforgiving era of mass incarceration, which she said saw many of those same people, often poor people of color, being incarcerated in prisons for long periods. It isn’t a big stretch to see how prison officials could begin abusing their power in a renewed push to prevent their charges from reproducing, Stern said.
“I see a lot of similar ingredients and sets of pre-conditions that allowed for [later] sterilization abuse in the prisons,” she said.
After undergoing sterilization without her consent or knowledge, Kelli Dillon said she began experiencing menopause symptoms when she was only 24.
“They weren’t telling me what they did and my body was going haywire,” said Dillon, who was released from prison in 2009 and now runs her own non-profit domestic violence counseling and violence prevention program and serves on a family services commission for the city of Los Angeles.
At the time, she was serving a 15-year manslaughter term for killing her abusive husband, after, she said, he hit her with an iron and threatened her two young sons.
Dillon said she had authorized the prison doctors to give her a hysterectomy only if cancer was found in the surgery, but no signs of cancer were ever reported.
She said the sterilization shattered her dreams of one day restarting her family and left her struggling with anxiety and depression.
“It was like my life wasn’t worth anything,” she said. “Somebody felt I had nothing to contribute to the point where they had to find this sneaky and diabolical way to take my ability to have children.”
A quest for justice, but concerns remain
While still incarcerated at Central California women’s facility, Dillon began to realize that many of her fellow inmates were getting hysterectomies and sterilization procedures as well. Sometimes it was after giving birth, while others had procedures that they were told were necessary to look for cancers or correcting gynecological issues. And so with her attorney, Cynthia Chandler, she began gathering the stories of other inmates.
Eventually, this led to an investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) that identified 132 cases of women being given tubal ligation sterilizations in the prisons without proper state approvals and a 2014 state audit, which found nearly 800 hysterectomies and other sterilizations were performed there.
One of the prison doctors told CIR that he viewed sterilization as a way to prevent prisoners from procreating and having “unwanted children” that could cost the state money.
Kelli Dillon and her attorney, Cynthia Chandler. Photograph: Courtesy of Belly of the Beast
“He articulated that it was a cost-effective way of preventing people from needing welfare,” said attorney Chandler. “He actually thought he was doing the taxpayers a favor.”
Chandler began working on the case in the early 2000s while with the prisoner rights advocacy group Justice Now, which she co-founded. She eventually helped to get a bill passed to make it clear that prison sterilizations are illegal and has been fighting to get compensation for survivors ever since.
The procedures often left patients unclear what had happened to them.
While an inmate at Valley state prison for women in 2003, Gabriela Solano underwent a surgery in which doctors said they were going to remove her swollen left ovary, but at the end they told her they had removed her right ovary instead, she told the Guardian.
When she questioned her prison doctors about it later, she said he told her “what do you care? You’re a lifer anyway.”
“I just remember him saying that to me,” she told the Guardian in a call from Mexico, where she now lives. “A lot of the girls I knew went through unnecessary hysterectomies.”
But many advocates of the new compensation program worry that the same sentiments that allowed the eugenics abuses of the past to occur still permeate American culture.
Prisoners, people with disabilities and people of color “are still considered to be at the margins of our society and not worth the bother of dignity or respect by many”, said Hafsah Al-Amin, the program coordinator for the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, which has worked with many of the current and former inmates who may be eligible for the compensation.
California is the first state to recognize and attempt to atone for much more recent cases of forced sterilization in the prisons. Photograph: Ric Francis/AP
“When people hear the term eugenics they often think of something that happened a long time ago,” said Lorena García Zermeño, the policy and communications coordinator for the California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, a co-sponsor of the bill. “But the legacy of eugenics continues to this day.”
She pointed to recent reports of women detained in US immigration centers being unnecessarily sterilized. But she also said health disparities, such as the huge numbers of Black people and Latinos who have died of Covid-19, are rooted in the same sense of disregard for the lives of people of color and poor people.
“It’s extremely important for the state to confront the racist, sexist, ableist beliefs that perpetuate health disparities happening now.”
Dillon said the idea that California is finally going to compensate eugenics survivors makes her feel like spinning in the streets like the 1970s television character Mary Tyler Moore, who played a TV journalist.
What finally helped her come to terms with the fact that she couldn’t have children, she said, was getting to know her now-eight-year-old grandson.
“I was given an opportunity, praise God, to have children before I went to prison,” she said. “And, through that, I now have the chance to be a mom or mother figure to my grandchildren.”