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Victims of Forced Sterilization in California Are Fighting for Reparations

Gaining justice for survivors of the state’s abuse is not only a reproductive health issue, it’s a racial justice issue.

A woman wearing a mask, holds a candle while taking part in a vigil outside Queensboro Correctional Facility on April 23, 2020, in New York City.

In the mid-2000s, Moonlight Pulido experienced a bout of hot flashes, emotional ups-and-downs, and other symptoms of menopause that confused her — after all, she was in her 30s and far too young to be experiencing these kinds of hormonal changes. Days before the symptoms set in, she had undergone what she believed to be a procedure to remove cancerous growths on her internal reproductive organs at the hospital at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California, where she was incarcerated. Instead, she had been forcibly sterilized.

Pulido, who now lives in a reentry program home located in Los Angeles, told Truthout that she didn’t even find out what had happened to her until she returned to the hospital for a postoperative dressing change. She asked the nurse what kind of procedure had been done on her. “She was like, ‘Oh, you had a full hysterectomy’,” Pulido said.

“[He] was a doctor and he worked in a prison, so I didn’t feel like I needed to worry about anything,” Pulido said. “So, when it came for surgery time, I didn’t read the paperwork. I just signed it. I didn’t know I was signing up for a full hysterectomy.”

Though the medical abuse that Pulido endured took place over a decade ago, it’s only recently that she’s been offered an apology for what was done to her and allowed reparative action on behalf of the state agencies that facilitated forced sterilizations. At the end of 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-California) signed legislation into law that established a $4.5 million compensation fund for victims of forced sterilizations. Through December 2023, the California Victim Compensation Board will review applications for reparations filed by people who were forcibly sterilized during two periods of time in which state employees were empowered to decide whether thousands of people were worthy of bodily autonomy and the right to reproduce. The first period was between 1909 and 1979, when eugenics sterilization was legal in the state, and the second was during the time period after, including when Pulido was sterilized.

“It is a victory to even get this type of an acknowledgement, but then the implementation falls way short of what we are hoping for,” said Diana Block, a founding member of the California Coalition for Women’s Prisoners. “In this case already we can see that there are many, many obstacles to people actually getting the compensation.”

The number of people who ultimately end up applying for funds is dependent on three factors — if grassroots organizations can let people know that there are funds to be had, if people who are currently or formerly incarcerated can gain access to their own medical records, and if the California Victim Compensation Board can respond with haste to let applicants know about the standing of their application.

Now, Pulido has the opportunity to collect up to $25,000 from the state as a means of a formal recognition of what she survived, but she’s still waiting to hear whether her application has been approved. Advocates for compensation fear that the state may act as negligently with the applications as it did toward systemic medical abuse of incarcerated women and others held in state facilities.

A 2013 Center for Investigative Reporting article first broke the story of forced sterilizations taking place in California’s state-run facilities and prisons, finding that at least 148 incarcerated women were subjected to sterilizations. Shortly after the article’s publication, state legislators called for an audit of sterilizations performed in prison health care facilities, which later identified 144 incarcerated women who had undergone bilateral tubal ligation — a procedure that serves no medical purpose but to prevent pregnancy.

Of those 144 patients, at least 39 were not offered informed consent or underwent procedures that were completed without the appropriate physician signatures on consent forms. The audit found that all but one of the 144 tubal ligation procedures lacked the necessary signatures, and cited the failure as “systemic.”

Even still, the government audit acknowledges that this is merely an estimate of how many people treated at prison hospitals were forcibly sterilized, seeing as, “the true number of cases in which Corrections or the Receiver’s Office did not ensure that consent was lawfully obtained prior to sterilization may be higher.” In fact, the audit says that data from the California Correctional Health Care Services Receiver’s Office shows that nearly 800 incarcerated women underwent procedures that “could have resulted in sterilization” in the years between 2005 and 2013.

The total number of potential survivors differs depending on who’s asked. The creators of Belly of the Beast, the 2020 documentary that helped propel the compensation legislation to the governor’s desk and shed light on the fact that sterilizations occurred in California as recently as 2011, identified as many as 1,400 survivors eligible for compensation. The California Victim Compensation Board says that they anticipate 600 people will come forward. According to the board, as of June 1, 62 applications have been filed and four have been approved.

“They [the state] have no record in one place of everyone who has been sterilized,” Block said. So, it’s a matter of people basically self-identifying and applying.” And now, “the clock is ticking.”

Chryl LaMar, a coordinator with the California Coalition for Women’s Prisoners (CCWP) who is formerly incarcerated, is helping survivors apply for compensation. She first reaches out through email to let survivors know about the funds and then walks them through the application, which CCWP worked with the California Victim Compensation Board to formulate.

But LaMar says that survivors are “running up against a wall.” Not only are survivors having a difficult time accessing their own medical records from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), but in many cases hospitals do not keep records for more than 10 years. It’s the kind of hurdle that can make gaining a small kind of justice for a traumatic event even more cumbersome. “CDCR should be giving ladies their documents inside of the system,” LaMar said.

The California Victim Compensation Board form asks that applicants provide proof of their sterilization or “suspected” sterilization (in the case that there is no official documentation), and in these cases LaMar is having to think creatively about how to demonstrate the medical abuse. She explains that in the case where someone can’t provide the medical records, they can provide a different record indicating that they were discharged from the prison to the hospital overnight, indicating that they underwent a procedure.

Gaining justice for survivors and reckoning with the state’s history of abuse is “not only a reproductive health issue [it’s a] racial justice issue,” said Lorena García Zermeño, the policy and communications coordinator at California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, one of the organizations that fought for the passage of the compensation bill. “It’s a matter of ensuring that our communities are not criminalized and upholding folks’ bodily autonomy.”

Eugenics practices and forced sterilizations have long been weapons wielded against Indigenous, Black and Latinx people, as well as immigrants, low-wealth and disabled people. In 1909, California enacted a eugenics law that allowed doctors working in state-run hospitals, homes and institutions to sterilize anyone classified as mentally ill, feebleminded, epileptic or syphilitic, using what eugenicists believe to be a crude immunization against a so-called predisposition for criminality. Latinx, Black and Indigenous women were disproportionately sterilized due to what scholars have called “deep-seated preoccupations about gender norms and female sexuality.”

During the 20th century about 60,000 recorded sterilizations took place across the U.S., with a third of those occurring in California. Even while the majority of sterilizations in the state took place between 1920 and 1950, the pathologization of mental ability, neuro non-normativity, race and queerness lasted well until 1979, when the state finally outlawed sterilizations for eugenics purposes. After the audit in 2014, the state banned sterilizations in prisons as a means of birth control. In 2016, there were an estimated 831 survivors of eugenics sterilizations with an average age of 87.9. As of 2021, there are only 383 living survivors of eugenics sterilization who would be eligible for reparations, according to Zermeño.

The legacy of eugenics is alive in the systemic failure to uphold the reproductive freedom of incarcerated people, most notably in the belief that low-income people, people of color — specifically Latinx, Indigenous and Black people — and disabled people drain state economies. Pulido says she experienced this firsthand from the doctor who performed an illegal hysterectomy on her: “I’m so sick of you guys coming in and out of the prison,” Pulido said the doctor told her when she returned for a dressing change. “You get pregnant and you end up back in jail and I have to pay for the care of your children through government aid, because you can’t stay home and be decent.” Pulido is Native American.

California conducted more than double the number of sterilizations of states like North Carolina and Virginia, which sterilized a recorded 7,600 and 8,000 people respectively. But California lags far behind those states in reckoning with its history, and it hasn’t sought to offer reparation payments until this year. Zermeño said that when crafting the compensation legislation, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice and other organizations modeled the language and expectations after similar programs in North Carolina and Virginia, estimating that 25 percent of the eligible survivors will apply for compensation. Zermeño wants the state to remember that issues of injustice are interconnected, and hopes she can draw people’s attention to the fact that racism and prejudice are baked into all parts of the system, not just those that facilitate the sterilization of people without their consent.

For Pulido, who’s rebuilding her life and community after so many years since her medical trauma, her survival is a testament to her strength. “Even though I went through what I went through, and I was told what I was told by that doctor, I still fought for my freedom,” she said.