Victims of Forced Sterilization in California Are Fighting for Reparations

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. Before the symptoms started, she had undergone what she believed was a procedure to remove any cancerous growths from her internal reproductive system at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla (California). Instead, she was forced to sterilize.

Pulido, who is now a resident in a Los Angeles reentry home, said 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 type of procedure was performed 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. Governor. Gavin Newsom (D.California), signed legislation that established a $4.5 Million compensation fund for victims forced sterilizations. Through December 2023, the California Victim Compensation BoardWe will review the applications for reparations from people who were forcibly sterilized during periods in which state employees had the power to decide whether thousands of people were deserving of bodily autonomy. The first period was between 1909-1979 when eugenics sterilization was legal in state. The second period was during the period after which 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 the state might be negligent in processing the applications, as it was with systemic medical abuse of women incarcerated 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 calledAn audit of sterilizations that were performed in prison-based health care facilities is required. identified 144 incarcerated women who had undergone bilateral tubal ligation — a procedure that serves no medical purpose but to prevent pregnancy.

At least 39 patients of the 144 were not given informed consent, or were subject to procedures without the proper physician signatures. The audit found that all but one of the 144 tubal ligation procedures lacked the necessary signatures, and cited the failure as “systemic.”

The government continues to provide support. 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 Belly of the BeastThe 2020 documentary that helped propel 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. According to the California Victim Compensation Board, 600 people are expected to come forward. According to the board, 62 applications were filed as of June 1st and four were 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 contacts survivors via email to inform them about the funds. Then she walks them through the application. This was created by CCWP in collaboration with the California Victim Compensation Board.

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 and forced sterilizations are long-standing weapons against Indigenous, Black and Latinx populations, as well immigrants, low-wealth, and disabled people. California passed a law allowing doctors working in state-run hospitals, homes, and institutions to sterilize anyone who is mentally ill or epileptic. It was enacted in 1909. what eugenicists believeIt was a crude immunization against criminality. Latinx, Black and Indigenous women were disproportionatelyScholars have caused sterilization called “deep-seated preoccupations about gender norms and female sexuality.”

About 60,000 sterilizations were recorded in the United States during the 20th Century, with about a third of them occurring in California. Even though the majority of sterilizations occurred between 1920-1950, there were still some. pathologizationThe state was finally abolished in 1979 due to the loss of mental ability, neuronormativity, queerness, and race. outlawedSterilizations for Eugenics purposes. The state was audited in 2014. bannedSterilization in prisons is a method of birth control. In 2016, there was an estimated estimated831 survivors of sterilizations by eugenics have 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 sterilized more people than North Carolina and Virginia. They sterilized an estimated 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.