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State seeks forced sterilization victims { July 17 2003 }

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State seeks victims of forced sterilization

By Emil Guillermo
Record Staff Writer
Published Thursday, July 17, 2003

The state's Department of Mental Health is on the look out for any of the 20,000 men and women forcibly sterilized between 1909 and 1970 under California's eugenics law, a policy similar to a Nazi German plan to weed out the mentally, morally and physically infirm.

The victims include the nearly 2,700 who were sterilized at the old Stockton State Hospital in the period between 1909 and 1950 alone.

Coming forward could open the door to compensation for victims from the state. But at the very least, state officials say, they are attempting to understand how to avoid a repeat of a dark part of California history.

Since spring, the state has tried to address its decades-long embrace of eugenics, whereby sterilization, selective breeding and social engineering were seen as a means toward racial and societal improvement.

Last month, the state Senate issued an apology to address the "bigotry and intolerance" against those viewed as "genetically unfit." In March, the governor and state attorney general formally apologized for the now discredited practices.

But after Wednesday's hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Genetics, Genetic Technologies and Public Policy, there was an admission that the official actions thus far amounted to empty gestures.

"What's missing are the victims," said Sen. Dede Alpert, D-San Diego, chairwoman of the committee.

"It's unfortunate we don't know who they are. At this point, none have come forward to share their personal stories with us."

During the hearing, Stephen Mayberg, director of the state's Department of Mental Health, agreed to survey state hospital employees in hopes they might know of patients who have been sterilized.

Mayberg called the outreach a serious effort where his office might gain insight on how the system was "derailed" and how things got "off-track."

Mayberg said the lack of people coming forward is due to what he called the "rampant stigma" associated with having been involved in the eugenics program.

"We don't want to retraumatize (victims) if they want to forget what happened to them," Mayberg said.

He said he hopes the publicity that comes from the recent apologies will encourage people to contact his office. "They can contact us in whatever anonymous way they want so we can begin to talk."

Identifying people is the first step in what could lead to compensation for those sterilized.

"Our committee will be open if we are able to speak with any victims," Alpert said. "I haven't thought about what it should be, but if we could identify people, beyond the apology issued by the attorney general, the governor and Legislature, I think we would want to look into what else can be done. But it's something the Legislature would be open to."

Alpert admitted that because the high numbers of sterilizations were done in the 1930s, it will be difficult to find very many living victims.

"It could be relatives," said Alpert, although the issue here is sterilization, it's unlikely heirs would exist. "But they may have had offspring before they were sterilized," Alpert said.

One mental-health advocate didn't seem to think compensation was necessarily the next step.

"They really need to stop talking in past tense and start making people look into the present, and that's the next step of the committee," said Michele Curran, a self-help program specialist for the California Network of Mental Health Clients. "We looked at the past, at the atrocities. Now, we need to look at the present to see how we can prevent it from happening in the future."

Alexandra Minna Stern, an associate director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan who made a presentation to the committee, said eugenics of the past still lingers in some form and has become more ethically complicated with genetic testing and the decision to terminate a pregnancy.

"We've moved out of forced state coercion," she said. "But we're not out of the woods. We've just entered a bigger forest."

* To reach reporter Emil Guillermo, phone (209) 546-8294 or e-mail

Who to contact
The state's Department of Mental Health is seeking those who were part of forced sterilization programs in state mental hospitals and institutions for the mentally retarded, certain prison inmates considered "moral degenerates" and epileptics. Contact Sheila La Polla, consumer liaison, Department of Mental Health, at
(916) 654 2309.

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