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Deadline Looms for Payouts Under California’s Forced or Involuntary Sterilization Compensation Program

December 31, 2023, will be the last day to file for reparations under California’s Forced or Involuntary Sterilization Compensation Program (FISCP). State lawmakers created it in 2021 to offer compensation to thousands of victims who were sterilized without their consent in the Golden State starting at the beginning of the last century.

 The state General Assembly approved $4.5 million to compensate survivors, to be divided equally among the claimants who qualify. FISCP follows in the footsteps of similar programs in Virginia and North Carolina that offered reparations to victims of unwanted or unasked-for sterilizations. Virginia passed its legislation in 2015 and North Carolina in 2013.

An estimated 20,000 Californians, most of them Black, Latino, or Indigenous, were forcibly sterilized at state-run hospitals and clinics between 1909 and 1979. Eugenics-inspired policies of the last century that sought to perfect a genetically superior human race through selective breeding relied on involuntary sterilization, segregation, and social exclusion to weed out people who were not considered desirable and prevent them from procreating.

California banned forced sterilizations in 1979, but the state continued to sterilize female prisoners, performing hysterectomies, ovary removals and tubal ligations without patients’ informed consent. FISCP reparations include victims of psychiatric hospital sterilizations from 1909 to 1979 – who are difficult to find and convince to apply because of their distrust of the government – and those survivors of sterilizations performed in prisons post-1979.

Moonlight Pulido was one of the women who underwent an unexpected sterilization. While held at Valley State Prison in 2005, she was diagnosed with potential cancerous growths in her uterus. In a panicked and hasty decision, she agreed to their removal. When she woke up after the surgery, she had undergone a complete hysterectomy, much to her horror and dismay.

The majority of the 144 sterilizations happened at two prisons: Valley State Prison and California Institute for Women in Corona. Dr. James Heinrich performed the hysterectomy on Pulido and was responsible for scheduling most of the procedures at Valley State. Heinrich told a reporter that sterilizing the female prisoners was a cost-effective service for California because it avoided the welfare costs of unwanted children. California later banned sterilization as a method of birth control inside its prisons and jails in 2014.

Organizations like the California Coalition of Women Prisoners (CCWP) are working to raise awareness of the FISCP funds available to women who were sterilized without their consent. CCWP helped Pulido complete a successful application, and the money has provided a lifeline for her after 26 years of incarceration.

Not all victims are eligible for compensation, however. Some women are excluded from compensation due to specific procedures, such as an endometrial ablation, or due to the location of their sterilization, including more than 200 women sterilized between 1968 and 1974 at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, now known as L.A. General Medical Center. Many of them were Mexican migrants with poor English who were in labor when coerced into sterilization, with little to no information about the procedure. Los Angeles County involuntary sterilizations of that period were covered in a landmark 1978 class action lawsuit that precipitated repeal of sterilization laws and implementation of informed consent policies. See: Madrigal v. Quilligan, USDC (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 75-cv-02057.

It is unclear how many applications FISCP has received, though as of April 2023 just 80 had reportedly been approved. State officials want to reach as many eligible women as possible before the program ends.   

Additional sources: National Human ­Genome Research Institute, Prism, Reuters

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Related legal case

Madrigal v. Quilligan