Ethnic Bias in California's Eugenic Sterilization Program, 1920-1945

Publication Abstract

PDF Novak, Nicole, Kate E. O'Connor, Natalie Lira, and Alexandra Minna Stern. 2016. "Ethnic Bias in California's Eugenic Sterilization Program, 1920-1945." PSC Research Report No. 16-866. 6 2016.

From 1907 to 1937, 32 US states authorized state institutions for the feebleminded and mentally ill to sterilize residents deemed unfit for reproduction. California carried out one-third of such sterilizations nationwide. Previous reports have documented the over-sterilization of Latino/Hispanic institution residents, and here we examine this ethnic bias at a granular level by linking data on on 17,362 California state institution patients recommended for sterilization from 1920-1945 to US Census microdata on total patient populations of each institution in 1920, 1930 and 1940. We found that Latino/Hispanic institution residents were, on average, recommended for sterilization at 2.65 (95% CI: 2.52, 2.77) times the rate of non-Latino/Hispanic institution residents. Ethnic bias in sterilization varied significantly by sex, age group and institution, with the greatest ethnic bias in sterilization among females, among individuals younger than 15, and among individuals living in state homes for the feebleminded (relative to those living in mental hospitals). We found no consistent ethnic differences in reported degree of "feeblemindedness" or mental health diagnoses, but Latino/Hispanic sterilization recommendees were more frequently flagged for "criminal tendencies" than their non-Latino/Hispanic counterparts. Among females, Latina/Hispanic patients were more likely to be deemed "sexually delinquent." While eugenic sterilization laws did not explicitly encourage sterilization of racial/ethnic minorities, in practice these policies targeted patients stereotyped as over-fertile and criminally inclined.

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