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Files reveal state supported sterilization { July 19 2003 }

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Files reveal state-supported sterilisation
By Mike Anton in Pasadena
July 19 2003

Unsealed archives have revealed how California sponsored the sterilisation of more than 20,000 people from 1909 to the 1960s as a supposed means of curing social ills from poverty and promiscuity to overcrowded institutions.

In a basement at the California Institute of Technology, 59 grey boxes contain thousands of brittle documents that

tell the story of the state's long and largely forgotten effort to sterilise mental patients. Memos show how California civic leaders helped popularise eugenics around the world, including Nazi Germany.

The archives of the Human Betterment Foundation, a private, Pasadena-based think tank that promoted sterilisation from 1926 to 1942, have been at Caltech for 60 years. Only since 1995 has most of the collection been open to researchers. A further 16 boxes will remain closed until 2005.

"California is an enormous story in the history of eugenics," said Paul Lombardo, of the University of Virginia's Centre for Biomedical Ethics. "What makes California special is the work of the Human Betterment Foundation, how it shaped public policy."

When Dr Lombardo lectured in March to a state Senate committee on California's aggressive sterilisation policy, senators were stunned. Most had never heard of it. Within hours the Governor, Gray Davis, issued an apology.

On Wednesday, a state Senate hearing revisited what one member called "one of the ugliest parts of our history".

"Many have cried a great deal," said Robert Edgerton, a psychiatric anthropologist and director of the University of California at Los Angeles Centre for Culture and Health, who interviewed dozens of former mental patients in the early 1960s for a state-sponsored study of sterilisation. Fourteen of his subjects are still alive.

In 1909, California became the third state to legalise the sterilisation of the feebleminded and insane. Eventually, more than 30 states with such laws would sterilise about 60,000 - a third of them in California, which repealed its law in 1979.

Ezra Gosney, the Pasadena financier who started the Human Betterment Foundation, was well regarded for his work in philanthropy and education reform. In 1926, at the age of 71, he quietly began funding studies on how sterilisation could combat problems caused by excessive breeding of the "unfit".

At the time, eugenic sterilisation was in the mainstream of science and politics, soon to be upheld by the United States Supreme Court and embraced by many social progressives, from the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, to the economist John Maynard Keynes. Many doctors thought sterilisation had a therapeutic effect on mental patients.

The Human Betterment Foundation not only promoted the sterilisation of the mentally ill, it also advocated voluntary sterilisation of the blind and disabled at public expense, as well as people with cancer, heart and kidney disease and tuberculosis.

"You were so kind to send . . . new information about the sterilisation particulars in California," Dr Fritz Lenz, one of Nazi Germany's leading eugenicists, wrote to Gosney in 1937. "These practical experiences are also very valuable for us in Germany. For this I thank you."

Sterilisation in the US continued until the early 1970s, by which time the link between heredity and mental illness had been discredited and new techniques for treating the mentally ill had taken hold.

Los Angeles Times

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