Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Eugenics & California History

Dear Students:

Tuesday morning, I was listening to Upfront on KPFA and the topic caught my attention. The host and her guest were speaking about eugenics and medical ethics.  With Henrietta Lacks on my mind, you know I had to be at the event at UC Berkeley, Boalt Hall this evening, for the discussion, even if I knew I was going to be late-- (I had a writing deadline to complete).

I hadn't known California was at the forefront of a government program between 1909 and 1972 when more than 20,000 state-sponsored sterilizations were performed. I was floored.

What was cool was the other panelist who was skyped in from Detroit. Alexandra Minna Stern wrote the definitive book on this topic, Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (2005). Talk about experts on the topic! In addition to Stern’s presence were other scholars who knew the breath of the issue and related it to current US policies.

The California numbers represented one-third of the 60,000 total in the United States. Children were taken from parents and forcibly sterilized. Others had to be sterilized in order to be released from state hospitals, prisons and other government facilities.

There are 831 survivors alive today. In California they are around 88 years old, but in North Carolina where the film is shot, the people are a bit younger. Targeted for sterilization were the poor, people with disabilities, especially cognitive (IQ 60 and below), Latinos, black people -- "people deemed 'unfit' for reproduction."  This does not even take into consideration what was happening on the reservations where such practices also occurred with regularity.

In 1970, USC hospital sterilized Mexicans. The story is documented in the film: "No Mas Bebes." The program would round up the entire family and sterilize the children too. Under President Nixon and then Johnson's War on Poverty, 100s of 1000s of women were sterilized. Nixon's program was called federal family planning. It was similar to what civil rights activist Ella Baker called the Mississippi Appendectomy. Women went into the hospital (in the 1940s and ‘50s) for one surgery and come out sterilized.

I went to the screening, arrived late and missed the film, but it is screening free online presently, so I am going to show it to you Wednesday morning. Donna, the director was at the screening at Boalt Hall. She said her husband bought the Skloot book for her when she was beginning her research for her film: "The State of Eugenics" in 2010.

What advocates are looking for are preparations for the survivors. In 2013, North Carolina paid $50,000 per survivor, while two years later Virginia paid, $25,000, in the meantime, California has done nothing. More recently, as in 2011, sterilizations of women prisoners in California were stopped. Women were targeted who were recidivism risks. Here is an article about new policies.

What I appreciated about discussion, especially Stern's, was the connection of Eugenics to an unparalleled global system of white supremacy and racism. These government officials were playing god, deciding who was worthy of being here and bringing others into the world like themselves, and who was not.  The director cited an article she read today where Harvard scientists were questioning the ethical application of research involving fetuses and new technologies which allow them to grow tissue, body parts, etc.

Here is a review of the book in Stern's book in the New England Journal of Medicine.

From the website:

REEL SOUTH: THE STATE OF EUGENICS, dir. Donna Sinclair-Shapiro

Video duration: 56:46 Aired: 01/26/17 Expires: 03/23/17 Rating: NR Video has closed captioning.
Between 1933 and 1974, the state of North Carolina ran one of the most aggressive eugenics programs, sterilizing more than 7,600 men, women and children. This film follows the journey of survivors, legislators and journalists who insist the state confront its role in the tragic, forced sterilization of thousands of Americans thought to have “undesirable” genetics.

I spoke to the director, Donna last night and she sent me a link to her film on "Reel South." She also tells me that she will call into my class to speak to students about her film. I am more than jazzed. We watch the film, which is excellent. What is moving are the personal stories of the victims she follows who tell their stories of being robbed of an opportunity to have a family. One man says that the nurse tells him to sing and when he awakens, he is sterilized. Another person, says that the doctor told her the procedure is reversible.

The director traces the history of the program and its national application. What is shocking is the deliberate use of sterilization to for genocide. A bureaucrat with no connection to the youth who is recommended for the surgery, makes inquires until the suggestion become his legacy. In one country over 400 people were sterilized.

Though the film focuses on the two starts where reparations are being paid, the work certainly speaks to the larger work still waiting to be completed.