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When California Decided Who Could Have Children and Who Could Not

Posted every Monday, the Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws -- as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert -- may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A.

Law: Asexualization Act
Year: 1909
Jurisdiction: California
Nominated by: William Deverell

Not every Law That Shaped L.A. is a positive one.

Here in the Land of Sunshine -- a name possessing its own irony and creeping menace -- we are on occasion gripped by what at least in retrospect seems like a malevolent insanity stunning in its brutality, audacity and violation.

The "Asexualization Act" of 1909, and its sibling follow-up Acts of 1913 and 1917, is a primary example of this grotesque.

The Act and its subsequent thumbs-up from the judicial branch -- and we're talking to you, Oliver Wendell Holmes -- gave the go-ahead for California to sterilize more than 20,000 men and women against their will. These decisions were made, or backed, by a board that at one point was aptly named the, "State Commission in Lunacy."

Officially, the majority of the people sterilized were diagnosed as being "mentally ill" or "mentally deficient," or possessing a "feeblemindedness."

Unofficially, African-Americans and people of Mexican origin underwent forced sterilizations to a degree greater than each group's per capita population would suggest. (Read here.)

When broken down further, it appears that the reasons these Californians had the possibility of reproduction or further reproduction stolen from them ranged from them essentially being deemed too poor or too drunk or too promiscuous to even to being the child of someone who was deemed too poor too drunk or too promiscuous.

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William Deverell nominates the Asexualization Act as a Law That Shaped L.A. Deverell is a celebrated author and historian, history professor at USC, and director of the Huntington-USC** Institute on California and the West.

[Deverell has also previously appeared in Departures here. And Jeremy Rosenberg's old City/Culture column featured Deverell here.]

Deverell cites research by the scholars Alexandra Minna Stern and Miroslava Chavez-Garcia showing that from 1909 through 1979 when California finally and formally banned the practice, the more than 20,000 people were victimized via procedures such as vasectomies and hysterectomies. The vast majority occurred prior to 1950. Stern's research also provides the ethnic breakdown linked to a few paragraphs above.

Senator Hiram Johnson (right, with Rep. Phil D. Swing) in 1930. Johnson, who was also the state's governor, was a leader of the Progressive movement in California and founder of the national Progressive party. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

California wasn't the only state to sterilize -- thirty or so others did as well. And California wasn't the first state -- Indiana did so beginning in 1907. But approximately one-third of all the nation's recorded forced sterilizations took place in the Golden State.

"Los Angeles was at the center of it in California and California was at the center of it in the United States," says Deverell.

The professor is speaking here of both the Progressive movement in general -- which is usually known for its political, regulatory, public health, educational, workplace and ecological reforms -- as well as what Deverell argues is the related forced sterilization movement.

Deverell says that the Asexualization Act is important in its own right, but he also notes the law's relationship to Progressive reforms and reformers of the same era is well worth pondering. So, too, is its contemporary resonance in Los Angeles' still-raging debates regarding the likes of ethnicity, assimilation and public health care.

"What's fascinating is how much of this was the purview of the reformers," Deverell says, looking back a century, and speaking of the sterilizations. "These are the people who see themselves at the leading edge of social reform and this is seen as a simple extension of it. It's really, philosophically, 'You clean up the water and you clean up the people who are utilizing the water.'"

Just to state the obvious -- Deverell is reporting here, and not in any way advocating for eugenics, or "social hygiene" as the disgraced pseudo-scientific theories were also known.

He is, however, interested in chronicling the flip side of the reform movement. "The Progressive era," Deverell says, "was an oftentimes surprising and quite energetic humanitarian [period] having to do with cleaning up city water, cleaning up disease, perfecting the nation in light of the new 20th Century, reaching down to the downtrodden, reaching down to the immigrant and reaching down to the working class."

Deverell also notes that there were twin, familiar watchwords for the Progressive era. "Good" and "clean" go right together," he says of the watchwords. "Clean government, good government; clean streets; clean water."

So far, so good. Then the reformers went nuts. "Well," Deverell says, "you can take the hygiene question directly into the human body; and these people know how to do it - or think they do. And so some of the progressive obsession with 'good' and 'clean' ends up in to hygienic reflexes that are aimed at the gene pool and blood streams."

Deverell continues: "Fairly quickly in the early 20th century you are going to encounter people who say, 'We can perfect the human race,' or at least, 'we can weed out the deleterious and drags on progress or the social order.' So it doesn't take a genius to start to put the checkerboard pieces together that make you realize that these are people who have very little compunction about actually moving to embrace sterilization."

Deverell says that he likes to teach his students not to look for the easy -- and stereotypical path -- out of a historical argument. Don't, he tells the students for example, say that all of the "bad people" lived in the American south during the Civil War and all of the "good people lived in the north and they went to war to free the slaves." History isn't necessarily that simple.

In 2003, California Governor Gray Davis issued a public apology for the forced sterilizations. The statement was far from a prompt admission, coming nearly a century after the policy began. But back when it was introduced, forced sterilization was apparently far from being politically controversial. In 1909, the Asexualization Act unanimously passed both houses of the California legislature.

Earlier in this column we mentioned issues of ethnicity and assimilation. How does this statute fit in that conversation?

"If you are sterilizing someone," Deverell says, "you are saying, if not to them directly, 'Your possible progeny are inassimilable, and we choose not to deal with that.' So those questions about assimilability are endemic in L.A."

Deverell says that Los Angeles, all things considered, has throughout the years done a pretty good job of assimilation. "But this is a long battle," the historian says, "and its not over."

As with any public policy, there are often repercussions far beyond the immediate population and square mileage covered by the more local law.

By way of shocking and devastating example: Consider that during the 1930s, information about California's program made its way - indirectly, via an east coast eugenics advocate - to Nazi Germany. The Nazis would go on to sterilize two million people, among their catalog of unimaginable horrors.

With the midday sun bearing down earlier this Spring, shadows and shade receding all around at the Huntington, the 'Sacrificial Succulent' a relatively short walk away, Deverell asks himself - and all of us - a question about the Asexualization Act.

"Have we learned from this?" Deverell says. Then he answers. "Yes. We know this was horrendous," he says. The counterfactual question is, remove the horrors from Nazi Germany from the table for a second. Do we learn the lesson if that is not there?"

Deverell's answer: "I don't know."


To suggest a "Law That Shaped L.A." or otherwise contact the columnist via: arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page.arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page.

**Jeremy Rosenberg works there as well.

Top photo: Staff inside the Los Angeles County General Hospital Psychopathic Department, c.1925. Forced sterilizations would later lead to a famous court case, Madrigal v. Quilligan. Photo from the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce Collection. Photo courtesy USC Digital Library

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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Deverell doesn't state clearly that the American Eugenics movement (pseudo-science) and the Progressive movement (politics) had distinct histories and prime movers but, among public intellectuals and political leaders involved in steering national policy, had some advocates in common (see http://www.princeton.edu/~tleonard/papers/retrospectives.pdf). In the South, by the 1920s the American eugenics movement was hijacked by the region's racist state-level political establishments, such as in Virginia where a sterilization act was paired with a "racial integrity" act (addressing both registration of race and anti-miscegenation; see the history of Virginia's Racial Integrity Act of 1924). Even in California, driven by Los Angeles's traditionally Southern-aligned (as in, almost religiously Anglo-Saxon supremacist) political elites, it's clear that a defense of the perceived greater "fitness" of the "Anglo-Saxon race" was the goal of California's relatively vigorous (compared with all other states) sterilization policy. Nationally, but especially in the South, these laws contributed to producing, by the 1920s, the post-Civil War nadir in American race relations (lynchings of blacks, white race riots in Tulsa, Okla., and elsewhere, etc.).