AILSA CHANG, HOST:
There's a grim chapter in American history that involves forced sterilization. And for much of the last century, California had one of the most active sterilization programs in the country. A state law from 1909 authorized the surgery for people judged to have, quote, "mental disease which may have been inherited." That law remained on the books until 1979. University of Michigan Professor Alexandra Minna Stern has been working to identify people who were forcibly sterilized under California's program.
ALEXANDRA MINNA STERN: Glad to be here.
CHANG: So did you find any patterns among the 20,000 names you discovered?
STERN: We have found a variety of patterns, and we keep discovering more. For example, we have determined that patients with Spanish surnames were much more likely to be sterilized than other patients, demonstrating that there was a racial bias in the sterilization program. One of the interesting things we discovered is that initially more men were sterilized. But by the 1930s, that pattern started to change. So that by the '40s and '50s, more women were being sterilized.
CHANG: So these people that were picked for the sterilization program - they were picked because of so-called, quote, "mental disease which may have been inherited." Can you give us some examples?
STERN: Well, it's very important to take that terminology with many historical grains of salt. It often meant people who were poor, people who lacked education, perhaps didn't speak sufficient English to make it through school and so on. But what it meant for those who were enacting the law were people who were determined to have low IQs, people with certain psychiatric disorders. Often, the way it was used was much more as a catch-all category. For example, young girls who are from broken homes - maybe they'd suffered some abuse in their family - they ended up out in the streets, not going to school. They were picked up by juvenile authorities. They would be sent to a girls' home, and then, eventually, they would be sent to a place like the Sonoma State Home, where they would be sterilized.
CHANG: You've determined there may be more than 800 of these people still alive. Have you found anyone who is still alive?
STERN: I haven't found anyone who's still alive. I have been contacted by relatives, particularly people who contacted me whose aunts or uncles were sterilized at some of these institutions. What we've done is we've generated the most reliable estimate. So what we could do is we could go and look at the records - and that's where I'd like to work with the state of California because what we've essentially created is a eugenics registry - we can look at the records and identify likely individuals and then reach out and contact them.
However, I would like to mention that in the two states that have enacted policies for monetary reparations for sterilization victims, in North Carolina and Virginia, the state took the lead in creating a kind of committee and a registry. And because it was the state seeking to provide some redress and to acknowledge this history, the state was able to actively set up a program and seek out and try to identify individuals. It's not that they should come to me, it's that they should go to the state. But our research can help facilitate that process.
CHANG: Alex Stern is a professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Thanks very much.
STERN: Thank you.
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