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Demographic Patterns of Eugenic Sterilization in California: Quantitative and Qualitative Analysis of Reproductive Control of the 'Unfit'

Research Project Description

From the passage of the country's first sterilization law in Indiana in 1907, until the 1970s when these laws began to be repealed by state legislatures, approximately 60,000 people were sterilized based on eugenic laws that sought to regulate the reproduction of the "unfit" and mentally deficient. California performed about 20,000 operations, or 1/3 of all sterilizations nationwide. Few empirical historical analyses of this practice are available. In 2007, while conducting research into the history of eugenics and sterilization at the Department of Mental Health, in Sacramento, Dr. Stern located 19 microfilm reels from this era that contain sterilization recommendations along with supplemental letters and forms from 10 state hospitals. Over the past two years our team has created a de-identified data set of these 15,000 sterilization recommendations, which were processed by the state of California from 1922 to 1952. We now propose to conduct quantitative and qualitative analyses of these sterilization recommendations to understand demographic patterns of eugenic sterilization and reproductive control in the 20th century. We hypothesize that teenagers and Spanish-surnamed inmates and patients were disproportionately sterilized in California institutions. We propose to link these data to census microdata to test our hypotheses about ethnicity and sterilization and to analyze keywords to understand trends in the data set related to sterilization refusals and familial resistance to sterilization. This study is relevant to contemporary ethical, legal, and social issues in human genomics, as it will provide a richer understanding of how coercion and paternalistic persuasion operated during the eugenics era in the United States, how stereotypes about race, gender, and sexual behavior influenced the state's intervention into the reproductive lives of institutionalized persons, and can inform contemporary debates about the values of "fitness" and "unfitness," normality and abnormality that inform uses of routinized and emerging genetic technologies and tests.

Funding: National Human Genome Research Institute (1 R21 HG 009205 01)

Funding Period: 6/6/2016 to 5/31/2019