Eugenic Sterilization in 20th-century California: From Demographic Analysis to Digital Storytelling

A PSC Brown Bag Seminar

Alexandra Minna Stern

Monday, 11/16/2015.   ARCHIVED EVENT

Location: 6050 ISR Thompson St

From the passage of the country's first sterilization law in Indiana in 1907 until the 1960s approximately 60,000 people were sterilized based on eugenic criteria that sought to regulate the reproduction of the "unfit" and mentally deficient. California performed about 20,000, or one-third, of all documented sterilizations nationwide. Few empirical historical analyses of this practice are available. In 2007, while conducting historical research at the Department of Mental Health (now Department of State Hospitals) in Sacramento, Dr. Stern located 19 microfilm reels from this era that contain 15,000 sterilization recommendations along with supplemental letters and forms from nine state hospitals (in total, over 30,000 individual documents). Over the past two years Dr. Stern and her team have created a de-identified HIPAA-compliant data set of these recommendations, which date from 1921 to 1952. We are now beginning to realize quantitative analyses with the eugenic sterilization dataset, which contains 212 coded variables, to describe trends in sterilization over time and to describe patterns of sterilization according to gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, diagnosis, institutional home, and many other variables. We also are linking the eugenic sterilization dataset to individual-level census microdata and tract-level census reports, which will allow us to calculate population-based estimates of sterilization rates and test hypotheses about the associations of gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, and diagnosis with the risk of sterilization. For example, we hypothesize that teenagers and Spanish-surnamed patients were disproportionately sterilized in California institutions. In addition, we will analyze qualitative patterns in the data with respect to familial resistance to sterilization, patient refusal, and experiences of institutionalization and sterilization. This project combines quantitative and qualitative methods, and is exploring new avenues for presenting big data through data visualization on an online archive under development.

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Alexandra Minna Stern, Ph.D. is Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, American Culture, History, and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan. There she is a core faculty member in the Latina/o Studies Program; the Science, Technology, and Society Program; directs the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies/Brazil Initiative and co-directs the Reproductive Justice Faculty Program at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. Her research has focused on the uses and misuses of genetics in the United States and Latin America. She is the author of Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (University of California Press, 2005), which won the American Public Health Association's Arthur Viseltear Award for outstanding contribution to the history of public health. Her latest book, Telling Genes: The Story of Genetic Counseling in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012) is a Choice 2013 Outstanding Academic Title in Health Sciences. She has held numerous grants for her work in medical history and health policy, including from the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Institutes of Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. She is currently leading a project to create a dataset of 15,000 eugenic sterilization orders processed by the state of California in the 20th century and is principal investigator on a Ford Foundation grant to assess the status of reproductive rights and justice organizations and issues in Michigan.

PSC Brown Bag seminars highlight recent research in population studies and serve as a focal point for building our research community. PSC Brown Bag Archive.

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