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For Decades, California’s Mental Health System Targeted Latinas For Sterilization

By Annie-Rose Strasser  

"For Decades, California’s Mental Health System Targeted Latinas For Sterilization"

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(Credit: University of Michigan)

Latina women in California’s mental health system were disproportionately targeted for forced sterilization for seventy years, according to new research by the University of Michigan.

Between 1909 and 1979, Latina women made up between 20 and 30 percent of the total sterilizations for mental health patients in California. It was during those years that California had in place a law that allowed the state to forcibly sterilize “feeble-minded” women, among others, based on the assumption that their offspring would suffer from the same “problems” that they did:

Various rationales were employed to justify a forced sterilization, including sexual deviance, being labeled as “feeble-minded,” suffering from epilepsy, being an out-of-wedlock adolescent without a support system, or having an I.Q. of 70 or lower. Many of the women sterilized in California were of Mexican origin, came from families disrupted by trans-border migratory patterns and had limited access to education.

The law that permitted forced sterilizations in California was one of a few state eugenics laws, legislative efforts to promote, essentially, selective breeding, weeding out people who society considered genetically imperfect. Often, eugenics laws are racially motivated by the belief that one race or ethnic group is genetically inferior to another.

Last year, a similar study by the University of Vermont found that African American women at some points in the 1960s accounted for as much as 60 percent of forced sterilizations in the state. Legislators tried to pass a compensatory bill for the victims, but the effort never made it into law, and thousands of black women in the state still live with the trauma of forced sterilization.

While it may seem like something out of a bygone era, quasi-eugenic views actually still do have some support. A recent immigration policy report by the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation was co-authored by a man who thought that Latino immigrants would give birth to children with lower IQs.

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