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Thesis title: The Aftermath of Progress: Policy, Practice and Pitfalls of Surgical Sterilization in California, 1910–1986
Start year: 2014
My research examines the enduring legacies of California’s successive policies and practices of surgical sterilization in the twentieth century. The State bears a long history of sterilization abuse, beginning in 1909 with the forced sterilization of some 20,108 individuals under eugenic sterilization laws. California was a front-runner in this endeavour, and accounted for approximately one-third of all the eugenic sterilizations carried out in the United States. The demise of eugenics has not simplified the issues surrounding sterilization and reproductive health policy in California, and as recently as 2013 it was reported that at least 150 female prisoners had been coercively sterilized by prison physicians.
In contemporary discussions over reproductive health policy in California, the State's 'sordid history' of eugenic sterilization disproportionately continues to serve as a touchstone. Correspondingly, there remains a relative paucity of engagement with the complicated trajectory of sterilization policy and practice after the decline of eugenic sterilization in the early-1950s. A number of less-conspicuous though impactful legislative changes between 1951 and 1986 prompted great swings in Californian sterilization policy, and precipitated significant consequences for the bodies of those affected by them. In each instance, policies were heralded as a progressive or enlightened step forward in the story of reproductive rights in California. This project seeks to weave this longitudinal story of sterilization into a unified narrative, exploring the factors that prompted changes in policy, and highlighting their intended and unexpected ramifications for Californians. It also seeks to connect these events to contemporary policy discussions, and State’s practice of eugenic sterilization figured in successive debates over sterilization policy in the twentieth century, as it continues to today. By connecting this more comprehensive history of sterilization with contemporary discussions, I hope to add a critical commentary to the perfunctory calls for 'progress' - based invariably on a cursory or sensationalised reading of the past - in the field of reproductive rights.
Eugenics; forced sterilization; reproductive rights; overpopulation; racism; California