Khalifa’s California: Shameful legacy–California led the nation in forced sterilization

Welcome to Khalifa’s California, an exploration of interesting and little known facts about the state sure to elicit an ahh or ohm; an ah-ha or uh-oh; an oh-my or oh-no.

One day in early spring 2003, with little fanfare and hardly any advanced notice, then Governor Gray Davis issued the following apology on behalf of the State of California.

“To the victims and their families of this past injustice, the people of California are deeply sorry for the suffering you endured over the years.” He continued, “Our hearts are heavy for the pain caused by eugenics.”

Eugenics, America’s national effort to purify the race was indeed a sad and regrettable chapter in the history of the nation as a whole and California in particular—certainly as Davis stated that March day, “One that must never be repeated.”

In the early 1900s, many of America’s powerful enthusiastically embraced the pseudo-science of eugenics, the  to restrict the births of poor whites, convicted criminals, those who were mentally challenged or suffered from other illnesses or disabilities like epilepsy, etc.

Though considered pseudo-science today—eugenics was real science in the United States and other places in the world until after World War II. A science that appealed to a number of America’s self-identified first families—those, who at the time, were allegedly among the many considered well born. Included among them, families like the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies, the Harrimans, the Bushes, the Roosevelts, and the list goes on.

Support for the poisonous ideology did not end there. The (pseudo) science of eugenics was studied and given validity at a number of the nation’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning. Institutions that not only included the private, ivy League lecture halls of Harvard and Yale; but, also some of the nation’s most prestigious public educational institutions—like California’s Universities of Berkeley and Stanford among others. It was also supported by a large number of the nation’s legislators as well as one the country’s most exalted leaders, President Theodore Roosevelt.

The eugenics movement expanded and grew like the proverbial snow ball that is forever rolling down the side of a snow covered hill—and gained momentum as it went. In addition to sterilization, the movement also gave birth to intelligence tests that eventually morphed into the Scholastic Aptitude Test or SAT and the birth control movement championed by eugenics enthusiast, Margaret Sanger.

“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.”

It was in the sterilization movement, however, that inhumane and once, politically popular policy—that California chose to lead the nation.

The eugenics-triggered, sterilization era in America lasted nearly 70 years. During those years more than 600,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized—200,000, or fully one third of those sterilizations were completed in California, more than any other state in the nation. As a matter of fact, California carried out twice as many sterilizations than either of its nearest rivals, Virginia and North Carolina.

According to the historical record, California defined sterilization not as a punishment but as a prophylactic measure that defended public health, preserved precious fiscal resources, and mitigated what it defined as the menace of the “unfit” and “feeble-minded.”

When the Eugenics strategy of sterilization was challenged up through the nation’s courts to the Supreme Court in the famous 1927 case, Buck vs Bell, the court upheld sterilization as constitutional.

It was in penning the majority opinion in this case, famed Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote, “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….”

According to a report by the American Public Health Association (PBHA) many experts believe the numbers of individuals actually sterilized during those 70 years are at best, only estimates. PBHA used statistical and demographic trends from the available data to discern the following: Firstly, foreign-born individuals were disproportionately affected by sterilization. They accounted for 39 percent of all men and 31 percent of all women sterilized. Of these, immigrants from Scandinavia, Britain, Italy, Russia, Poland, and Germany were most represented. Records also revealed African Americans and Mexicans were sterilized at rates that exceeded their numbers in the general population. From 1921 to 1930, African Americans represented just over one percent of California’s population; yet, they accounted for four percent of the state’s total sterilizations.  Experts believe the number of sterilizations may be conservative compared to the actual number because records were not adequately maintained.

At least 33 states, including California maintained forced sterilization programs far into the late 1970s. Many states, like California, have since issued formal apologies; but, for thousands of Americans rendered unable to have children, whose lives were grievously impacted by this egregious policy, there is a movement underway to provide some measure of compensation.

Earlier this year, the state of Virginia (where the Buck vs Bell case originated) became the second state, behind North Carolina, to authorize restitution for its sterilization victims.

The sterilization victims’ fight for restitution is being led by the Christian Law Institute’s Justice for Sterilization Victims Project. According to the organization’s website, it has now set its sights on seeking compensation for sterilization victims in California.

For more information on the Sterilization Victims Project visit

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