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Davis' Apology Sheds No Light on Sterilizations in California

Lack of an inquiry into the state's ambitious eugenics effort and its 20,000 victims angers some historians and disabled advocates.

March 16, 2003|Aaron Zitner | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — To make amends for a state program that sterilized 7,600 people against their will, North Carolina's governor created a panel last year to probe the history of the effort, interview survivors and consider reparations.

In Oregon, then-Gov. John Kitzhaber last year apologized in person to some of the 2,600 people sterilized there, and he created an annual Human Rights Day to commemorate the state's mistake. On the day Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner apologized, Jesse Meadows and other victims unveiled a roadside marker.

"It felt pretty good to be there, even though it was so late," said Meadows, 80.

Some historians and advocates for the disabled had a mixed reaction to the apology issued Tuesday by Gov. Gray Davis for California's policy, the most aggressive in the nation, which sterilized an estimated 20,000 mentally disabled people and others from 1909 through the 1960s.

Davis offered his apology in a press release. No survivors or disability groups were on hand to accept it. There was no order to probe for more details of a history that, according to scholars, is still largely unexplored and not fully understood.

"It's like a preemptive apology.... We don't know yet who to apologize to," said Alexandra Stern, a University of Michigan historian who is writing a book about California's sterilization program.

"An apology with no attempt to find the people who deserve to receive it is meaningless," said Stephen Drake, research analyst with Not Dead Yet, a national disability rights group. "If the governor is serious about wanting to understand this shameful chapter of California history, then you need an effort to study the records of just how this was done."

"I think it's premature," said Paul Lombardo, a University of Virginia historian who revived interest in the state policy when he lectured Tuesday to a California Senate committee. The lecture, which some officials said was the first time they had heard of the sterilization policy, triggered a statement within hours from Davis and a separate apology from state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer.

Lombardo and Drake said the apologies were welcome as acknowledgments of past abuse. "But if they don't try to understand the history, then I don't know what it's worth," Lombardo added.

Historians have only recently begun to explore California's sterilization effort. Primarily at institutions for the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled, the state sterilized thousands of people under the premise that the "unfit" should be removed from the gene pool so their children would not burden society.

But some of the basic details still are missing. Among them: exactly how many people were sterilized.

The mentally ill and developmentally disabled were the initial focus of the policy, but some historians believe that it also targeted Mexican and Asian immigrants, criminals, juvenile delinquents and sexually active women.

Even the date that the practice ended is unclear, though it may have been as late as 1969.

"We checked that and we haven't been able to determine that," said Bertha Gorman, spokeswoman for the California Health and Human Services Agency. Because of patient confidentiality rules, historians have had little access to state records that might shed light on the state's sterilization history.

"Shouldn't we demand that the state fill in the history?" asked David Mitchell, who runs a disabilities studies program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "That would be the foundation of a meaningful apology."

Russell Lopez, a spokesman for the governor, said he had called three state departments last week in an attempt to find survivors but was told no names could be released because of patient confidentiality rules.

"The governor just learned about this," Lopez said, "and he decided it was something he must do: apologize for what the Legislature did in the past."

In Virginia, North Carolina and Oregon, a combination of media interest and university research brought attention to past sterilization programs and led to the state apologies.

Although some details remain clouded, there is no doubt that California was once home to the largest sterilization program in the nation and to some of the most influential supporters of the practice, including the publisher of the Los Angeles Times in the 1930s.

At least 30 states passed laws in the first decades of the 1900s that aimed to shape society by denying the so-called unfit the ability to reproduce. Scientists already had shown how careful breeding could improve crops and livestock. Now, they were arguing that selective breeding could improve humanity and wipe out poverty, prostitution and mental illness, which were thought to have genetic roots.

The concept, known as eugenics, led to the sterilization of more than 63,000 people in the United States from about 1907 through the 1970s.

California accounted for one-third of all operations. Its sterilization law was the second in the nation, after Indiana's.

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