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California Prisons Where Eugenic Sterilization Remains A Common Practice

June 24, 2014
In the 19th and early 20th Skull Measurements were used to determine "eugenic" characteristics.

In the 19th and early 20th Skull Measurements were used to determine “eugenic” characteristics.


Some presume that eugenics, that perverse notion of genetic engineering based on flaky genetics, died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, the factory floor of I.B. Farben where it was exposed for the inhumane, racist, class-biased bigotry that it was. This was not the case. Its advocates crossed the political spectrum from left to right. It was not just right-wing weirdos of all stripes, Christian identity types and KKK types whose eyes lit up and penises stiffened at the thought of Blacks, Native Americans, Jews, Mexicans and generally speaking poor people having their vas deferens snipped or their tubes tied.

Liberal politicians, socialists, Unitarians – those who believed in “managed progress,” “rational development” were, in the day, equally as enthusiastic – and as racially bigoted and class biased as their more conservative brethren and sisteren (if the latter is a word). It was  the rage to support interfering with the reproductive rights of others as a way to make the world a better place, as long as the movement did not cut out the testes and purge the ovaries of those too close.

But then eugenics is generally thought of as a thing of the past, a bit embarrassing because it was so enthusiastically embraced in the U.S. of A., even more so because the legal basis of the Nazi programs of extermination were based heavily on U.S. law (the Virginia eugenics laws). The word itself, “eugenics” is foreign to eyes and ears of most Americans, excepting those groups who were its victims perhaps, and today it is “out of fashion” so to speak. But it continues, not perhaps on the levels of the pre-World War 2 world, more so out of sight, out of mind; every once in a while, a news report reveals we have not seen the last of the awful stuff. California is a fine example of eugenics’ stubborn persistence.


The headline of KQED on-line news (June 20, 2014) reads “Female Prison Inmates Sterilized Illegally, California Audit Finds”. It goes on to relate how the state’s auditor “blasted” federal and state oversight failures of sterilization surgeries done on female prison inmates. The auditor found “numerous illegal surgeries and violations of the state’s informed consent law. Between 2005-6 and 2012-13 the state prison system performed some 144 tubal ligations; nearly a third of them were performed without lawful consent, this according to a report released on June 19, 2013.

The auditor’s public rebuke of federal and state oversight is the culmination of a long investigatory process that began with a July 7, 2013 Center for Investigating Reporting expose by Corey G. Johnson claiming the widespread practice of forced sterilization in the California prison system, most especially at the California Institution for Women in Corona, one of two California women’s prisons were the practice, was widespread. The other institution was Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla which became a men’s prison in 2013.

Although Johnson’s figures vary some from those cited by the California auditor – the general theme is the same – that California systematically and knowingly violated – the reproductive rights of the state’s prison inmates. Johnson’s investigation asserted that “from 1997 to 2010, the state paid doctors $147,460 to perform the procedure, according to a database of contracted medical services for state prisoners.”

Corey Johnson’s claims were taken seriously enough so that two California legislators, Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) and Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) of the California Legislative Women’s Caucus, that a month later, in August, 2013 requested an official audit of prison sterilization practices. Not only did the audit reveal that forced sterilization had taken place, but a number of other strikingly illegal and unethical practices were revealed, such as

∙ In 27 cases, the inmate’s physician — the person who would perform the procedure in a hospital or an alternate physician — did not sign the required consent form asserting that the patient appeared mentally competent and understood the lasting effects of the procedure, and that the required waiting period had been satisfied.
∙ In some cases, physicians falsified the consent forms, indicating the proper waiting period had passed when it clearly had not.
∙ The audit also said the “true number” of illegal procedures might be higher, noting that it had found seven cases at one hospital for which health records were lost in a routine purging.
The Federal Receiver claimed they had no legal duty to make sure the prison employees comply with the consent procedures.
∙ Former inmates and prisoner advocates maintain that prison medical staff coerced the women, targeting those deemed likely to return to prison in the future. The audit released today notes that all women receiving tubal ligations had been incarcerated at least once before, indicating that they were repeat offenders.
∙ Federal officials said none of the tubal ligations performed since 2006 received sign-off by a state-level committee of medical professionals.

The audit revealed that more than half of the tubal ligation requested during that time period, some 74 in all, came from one facility, at Chowchilla. Most of those requests came from one physician, a Dr. James Heinrich, Valley State’s OB-GYN, or a nurse on his staff, according to the prison’s medical service request records. Defending the sterilizations with impeccable eugenic logic, Heinrich was quoted as commenting that the money spent sterilizing inmates was minimal “compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children – as they procreated more.”

Responding to the auditor’s report, state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Redondo Beach) commented, “It made me sick to my stomach.” Lieu was the first to call for an investigation by the Medical Board of California, which is ongoing. He also demanded a formal apology from the federal receiver’s office, which took over medical care in the state’s prisons in 2006.

Senator Hanna Beth Jackson did her bit as well, introducing a bill that would ban all inmate sterilizations for birth control purposes. Under SB 1135, such surgeries would be performed only during life-threatening emergencies and to cure physical illness. Prisons performing sterilizations would be required to report annually the number of surgeries by race, age, reason and surgical method. The bill also provides legal protections for any personnel who report abuses.

All well and good, but SB 1135 would have more teeth if it proposed punitive actions, punishable by law for doctors and nurses who perform forced sterilizations, including fines, prison sentences and loss of certification. While the intention of the bill is decent enough, without such stipulations, it lacks teeth necessary to counter these practices. Keep in mind that historically, in the United States (and elsewhere) doctors were notoriously involved in playing God, practicing eugenic sterilization and promoting it.


The practice of pressuring especially women to accept sterilization in return for reduced sentences was rampant in the nation’s prisons, mental hospitals, public hospitals and orphanages during the height of the eugenics craze in this country between 1900 and 1940. Another common tactic was to sterilize women at the time or just after they gave birth. In many cases, this was done without the woman’s consent, or even knowledge. During that period, official statistics, which undercount the seriousness of the abuse by a large margin, California led the nation in the number of eugenic sterilizations.

“Eugenics”, little more than an obscene form of social control based on denying people their reproductive rights, always targeted the impoverished, racial and cultural minorities. The theoretical basis for it, a pseudo-science based on a profound ignorance of genetics, was developed in Great Britain in the 19th century. Its practical application – using forced vasectomy and tubal ligation – against institutionalized persons in the United States was developed and given legal sanction in the United States in the period approximately between 1900 and 1940. But its “true potential” was only reached with the Nazi extermination programs against Jews, Slavic peoples, Soviet POWs, French miners during World War II. Prior to gassing “eugenically unfit” persons, the Nazis force sterilized several hundred thousand, using U.S. developed legal procedures (the Virginia sterilization laws) as a guide.

Among the definitions used in The United Nations Convention on Genocide (1948) to define the act of genocide as it is today accepted by international law is Article 2d, which reads that genocide includes “Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group”. Put more bluntly, but clearly international law defines involuntary sterilization that targets a group of people based upon class, race, religion or political orientation as genocide, nothing less. As a result of the Nazi genocidal excesses and the UN Convention on Genocide, the eugenics movement lost much of its gloss. Its defenders were forced to retreat, the association of American eugenicists with the crimes of Nazism an undeniable fact.

Indeed, American eugenicists defended Nazi practices long after they became public knowledge. But the movement’s ability to maintain a positive public posture was essentially destroyed in the furnaces of Auschwitz and the factories of I.B. Farben. It might also be added that already by the mid 1930s, the genetic basis of eugenics had been thorough discredited. It was not an easy chore to give eugenics a facelift, but its defenders did exactly that, finding a certain space in both the birth control and population control movements.

Although eugenic sterilization has been seriously circumscribed in the United States by federal law, it is important to keep in mind that it remains legal, based upon the decision of a 1927 Supreme Court case entitled Buck vs. Bell. This decision gives the state, be it the federal or state government in the case of the United States, the right to deny people reproductive rights on the basis of health standards. Buck vs. Bell remains the law of the land until today. However, the state’s right to forcibly sterilize people in prisons has been denied. In the 1942 Skinner vs. Oklahoma case, the U.S. Supreme Court partially reversed itself and struck down a law allowing the involuntary sterilization of criminals. Thus these recent California audit revelations define the forced sterilizations as clearly illegal. But no states to my knowledge have developed legislation based upon this decision.


Nor should it be a great surprise that forced sterilization should be uncovered in the California prison system. Its supposedly more open and relaxed lifestyle covers a history of racism and class prejudice as extensive as any state in the nation. It includes the extermination of the state’s Native American population, the subjugation of its citizens of Mexican origin, the brutal and unethical treatment of the state’s farm workers to name a few of the more obvious social scars on the state’s landscape. Add to that one of the most aggressive and in many ways perverse eugenics programs in the nation’s history (of aggressive and perverted eugenics programs).

So long before Dr. Heinrich was pontificating on how the costs of sterilization justified sterilizing women in the California prisons, the state was busy snipping away and tube tying its more economically modest and culturally unique populations. A few examples will suffice to give the flavor of the state’s eugenic propensities:

∙ As pointed out in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics, Leo Stanley, a good California physician smitten with eugenic values of improving “the manly vigor” of the state’s white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant element – otherwise known as WASPS – had an experimental fixation for grafting the testes and scrota of dozens of male prisoners with testicular tissue derived from a variety of eclectic sources. Just doing his deeds for God and Country. Stanley, who happened to be the superintendent at California’s San Quentin prison, used the sexual organs, materials from deceased prisoners, goats, rams, boar and deer in an attempt to “cure” hypersexuality and excessive onanism (otherwise known as masterbation). Stanley conceived of these Mengele-like experiments as a part of a larger eugenic program which included more traditional methods of negative eugenics – the segregation and sterilization of the prisoners which he identified as “eugenically unfit”, mentally deficient and sexually deprived.

∙ There are statistics which indicate that between 1909 and 1979 (when the law was repealed), more than 20,000 sterilizations were ordered in California state institutions. Those targeted were in the majority females having been labeled as “feebleminded”, “morons”, or “promiscuous”. As in Nazi Germany, the California eugenics movement ordered the sterilization of homosexuals. “Again and again, men perceived as effeminate or who engaged in same-sex relations in or outside the institution were categorized as sexual deviants and sterilized, sometimes with their own consent or that of a family member (quite common) and sometimes against their will

∙ Besides Gays, California’s forced sterilization program has had a special penchant for targeting Latino women. Patients with Spanish surnames in California psychiatric institutions and homes for the developmentally disabled were disproportionately sterilized at rates ranging between 20 to 30 percent in the last century, according to a study done by Alexandra Minna Stern and and Natalie Lira of the University of Michigan revealed that “In California alone, the study found, between 3,000 to 4,000 women with Spanish surnames were sterilized in psychiatric institutions and homes for the developmentally disabled mostly from 1922 to 1952. Which is to say, of the 15,000 of the salpingectomies, or removal of the fallopian tubes, that took place on women during this time period in these institutions in California, 20 to 30% of them were targeted on Latinas, according to the study. Men were also targeted with vasectomies”

∙ A recent documentary, No Más Bebés Por Vida probes the involuntary sterilization of Mexican and Chicano women at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of the women sued; the case was thrown out of court.

With all this in mind, the new revelations of sterilization abuse in the California prisons, while certainly welcomed, is nothing new. It probably reveals only the tip of the proverbial ice berg of these unethical, inhumane and still widespread practices…



One Comment leave one →
  1. July 5, 2014 12:10 am


    I have nominated your blog for the Most Influential Blogger Award.

    More about this nomination is at

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