It’s been almost 20 years since a botched surgery while she was incarcerated, but Gabby Solano still mourns the bleak consequences of losing an ovary after her other ovary had already been compromised.
“To me, a woman is here to have kids,” she said. “I’m never going to feel that — being pregnant, the baby growing inside of you, having that unconditional love.”
She’s among dozens of California women who underwent sterilization procedures without their consent while they were in state prisons, up until as recently as 2010.
The wrongful prison procedures echo an older, horrific chapter in California history that affected many more people. Impelled by the racist practice known as eugenics, California forcibly sterilized more than 20,000 people from 1909 to 1979. Both men and women, they were residents of state-run institutions for people who were mentally ill, or had intellectual or physical disabilities.
Now California is owning up to its deplorable practices. The current budget includes $4.5 million to be split among survivors of sterilization procedures at state prisons and institutions, plus money for outreach and to place plaques at some sites.
“While we can never fully make amends for what they’ve endured, the state will do all it can to ensure survivors of wrongful sterilization receive compensation,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement.
The amount survivors receive will depend on how many can be found, but it should be at least $10,000 each and possibly as much as $25,000.
“I don’t think any kind of monetary compensation can make up for what the state has done to these individuals,” said Carly Myers, a staff attorney at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. “It is really tragic all around. But we are appreciative that California is taking a material step forward in acknowledging that what it did was unjust, wrong and has traumatically affected the lives of tens of thousands of people.”
Many of those targeted by the eugenics policies were minorities, gay people, transsexuals, disabled people, poor people and women who were considered promiscuous.
“There was a lot of racism, classism and ableism involved in it,” said Laura Jimenez, executive director of California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, which fought for redress for survivors of forced sterilization. “People of color bore the brunt of this eugenics pseudoscience.”
Poverty was another impetus. “Doctors who did most of these sterilizations would say things like, ‘These women won’t have any more children who will be on welfare,’ ” said Paul Lombardo, a law professor at Georgia University who has studied the history of the eugenics movement.
“That kind of violence and efforts to subjugate and/or disappear whole groups of people is all part of the same philosophy formed by white supremacy and institutionalized systemic racism,” Jimenez said.
Mary Franco was just 13 when she was sterilized in 1934. Her family, Mexican immigrants living in Arcadia, had her committed to nearby Pacific Colony and State Narcotics Hospital in Pomona (Los Angeles County) after a neighbor molested her. They wanted to stop rumors and preserve their own reputations.
“She was labeled ‘feeble-minded due to sex delinquency,’ ” said Stacy Cordova Diaz, Franco’s great niece, who has accumulated a trove of documents about what happened to her Aunt Mary, who died in 1998, a day before her 78th birthday. “This was a young, vibrant girl. She wasn’t ‘feeble-minded’ and I want everyone to know that.”
Diaz uncovered the family secret when she interviewed Franco for a Chicano studies class a few months before her great aunt passed away.
“She revealed to me that she was put into an institution because she was a ‘bad girl’ and she was sterilized and felt no one would ever love her because she couldn’t bear children,” Diaz said. “She blamed herself for disgracing the family. She felt like her life was ruined.”
The two women cried together.
“I was absolutely stunned,” Diaz said. “It was very upsetting. I felt for her and it made me mad. I couldn’t believe this happened. So harsh. So cut-throat.”
Years later, Diaz heard a radio program about California’s eugenics movement and how it targeted people of Hispanic heritage in state-run institutions.
“To hear it was a government program, that threw me for another loop,” she said.
That spurred her to do more research. Now Diaz is working on a book about Franco, the eugenics movement and her own history as a teenage mother.
Franco was released after about a year at the institution. She got married at age 17 or 18. But when her husband found out she couldn’t bear children, “he brought her home and never saw her again,” Diaz said.
Franco lived on her own for the rest of her life, working for about 40 years as a canner at StarKist Tuna in San Pedro.
“She was a dear, grandma-like figure, always spoiling my sister and I,” Diaz said. “She’d always bring little gifts and trinkets for us. She was funny and feisty.”
Diaz applauds the California restitution. (Money is only available to people who were sterilized, not their families.)
“My aunt would have been right on with this,” she said. “Of course it wouldn’t have taken the pain away, but to know someone acknowledges how wrong this was, she would have appreciated that.”
In delving into her aunt’s life, “I found so many pictures of her with babies,” Diaz said. “She was always taking care of kids for the neighbors. She loved babies; she just loved babies.”
Franco’s surgery and others like it were sanctioned by California law. The 1909 Asexualization Act sought to prevent people considered “unfit” from procreating. It was followed by similar laws that expanded the scope to anyone deemed “abnormal,” a category that included “questionable” sexual behavior or “moral perversions.”
California was one of the first among some 30 states to legally authorize sterilization and became the most prominent practitioner, sterilizing about a third of the 60,000 people targeted nationwide over seven decades.
The idea grew out of eugenics, a pseudo-science focused on improving a population’s genetic composition through “selective breeding.” In the early 20th century, leading scientists, doctors, philanthropists and professionals endorsed the idea of weeding out “undesirables” from future generations.
Even the U.S. Supreme Court backed the concept. “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind,” Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in an infamous 1927 decision.
Adolf Hitler praised the eugenics movement in California and other U.S. states in his 1925 book “Mein Kempf.” Historians believe it served as a model for his own horrific practices, which included forced sterilization of some 400,000 people after becoming leader of Germany.
“There was clearly back and forth between (eugenics) scientists in America and Germany both before and during Hitler,” said Lombardo, the professor who studies eugenics history.
One of the first measures passed after Hitler came to power in 1933 authorized compulsory sterilization for people considered “genetically diseased.” It borrowed language from laws in California, Indiana and Virginia, while casting an even wider net on who could be sterilized, Lombardo said.
It took until 1979 for California to overturn its sterilization law.
But the practice still occurred at prisons, where doctors made reproductive decisions for women under their care. Some acknowledged that they felt the prisoners didn’t deserve to make reproductive decisions or that their children would be a burden to society. One doctor said the surgeries “were cheaper than welfare,” according to court documents.
The Center for Investigative Reporting, the California State Auditor, and other investigators uncovered dozens of instances of tubal ligations, hysterectomies and oophorectomies (ovary removals) performed without consent up until 2010. The documentary “Belly of the Beast” said there were nearly 1,400 sterilizations of inmates between 1997 and 2013.
Prison sterilizations were prohibited in 2014.
Finding people who will qualify for state reparations may be hard. So much time has passed that survivors of the institutional procedures who are still living now number only a few hundred. Survivors of the prison procedures may not even know what happened to them, as doctors sometimes withheld information.
“We are committed to making sure women have every possible opportunity to have their records reviewed if they suspect this may have happened to them,” said Hafsah Al-Amin, program coordinator at the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. “These doctors who, for far too long, got away with this under auspices of the state, their records are not as clear as is now required.”
The words of the prison doctor still ring in Solano’s ears: “You’re a lifer anyway; you don’t need that ovary.”
She’d gone in for surgery to remove a cyst from her left ovary. When she woke up, she was informed that her other ovary had been removed. Her despair at the news was rebuffed.
At the time, she was still new at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla (Madera County).
Solano was incarcerated after her abusive ex-boyfriend coerced her into giving a ride to him and some friends. Her ex and his friends stole a car and killed a pedestrian. Solano, now 49, was sentenced to life without parole with an additional 25 years to life as an accomplice under California’s felony murder rule, which doesn’t require proof of intent or direct involvement in first-degree murder.
A petition seeking commutation of her sentence said her legal counsel was “compromised” and she didn’t understand the consequences of not accepting a plea bargain. The jury was not allowed to hear about her history of domestic violence at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, whom she’d been with on and off since age 15.
“It was lots of physical, mental and emotional abuse,” she said. “He broke my nose twice; he beat me bad.”
During 23 years in prison, Solano focused on rehabilitation, facilitating groups for other prisoners, working as a clerk and taking classes. She earned a GED and two A.A. degrees. In 2018 Gov. Jerry Brown commuted her sentence to 20 years to life, making her eligible for parole.
Solano was paroled last year — but then immediately placed in immigration detention. After a few months, she was deported to Mexico, a country she had left at age 2. (She is suing over the immigration issue.)
She chose Tijuana, hoping its proximity to the border would ease visits from her family in San Bernardino. Now she lives in a studio apartment and works six days a week at a call center, answering questions from American customers about blue jeans.
The surgery cast a shadow on her release from prison. “When I got out (and realized) I’m not going to have kids, it’s something I’ve struggled with,” she said.
A couple of years after her surgery, Solano was subpoenaed to testify in a lawsuit brought by another inmate who also had a procedure that resulted in sterilization. The next time Solano had a medical appointment, the prison doctor yelled at her, saying “How dare you speak against me,” she recalled.
She didn’t know much about California’s reparations until a Chronicle reporter contacted her.
“That money doesn’t change the fact that I (can’t) have kids,” she said. “I don’t care about the money. What they did to me is the issue here.
“It was so dismissive and disrespectful, like I wasn’t a person; I was just an inmate and my feelings didn’t count. There’s no amount of money that can take away how I felt.”