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    The Dark History of the Eugenics Movement in Northern California Has Chilling Implications for Today

    Written by Julie Zigoris, SF Standard

    It’s easy to think of eugenics as something that happened far away from us, with ideals alien to our character. Yet Adolf Hitler himself studied—and was inspired by—American laws that prevented the birth of people “injurious to the racial stock.”

    Eugenics—the desire to increase qualities deemed to be favorable within the gene pool, with sterilization as one of its primary tools—isn’t owned by Nazi Germany, and it hasn’t gone away.

    Far from being a fringe movement, the eugenics movement cast its net over everyone from Planned Parenthood leader Margaret Sanger to Save the Redwoods League co-founder Madison Grant. The movement’s creator, Francis Galton, was cousin to none other than Charles Darwin. The desire to improve the human race was tied up in what at the time seemed like a noble pursuit to make a better world, one that comes chillingly close to ideals we cherish today.

    The arguable capital of the eugenics movement in the U.S. was even closer to home—in Northern California, where one third of America’s sterilizations occurred. And the Sonoma State Home, an institution opened in 1891 for the developmentally disabled, likely sterilized more people than any other institutional setting in the world.

    “It was a mostly male and white institution […] who thought they were taking on the biggest problems of the day in Northern California and in the West more generally,” said historian and author of Eugenic Nation Alexandra Stern.

    These crimes were largely committed by a class of affluent do-gooders, who cloaked their pursuits in the language of science and human progress.

    California is actively trying to find the survivors of this dark chapter of history so as to compensate them with up to $15,000 each in reparations under a state law that passed in 2021. But only 51 people have been approved for payments, even though there are as many as 600 alive today who would be eligible for the monies—and California has only one more year to find survivors until the $4.5 million program shuts down.

    Yet, given the height of sterilization occurred in the 1930s, the vast majority of those impacted by California’s state-sanctioned eugenics program are already dead, their legacy a part of the fabric of our state.

    “Eugenics history is a layer of the history of California,” Stern said.

    While conducting her research, Stern discovered the sterilization records of over 20,000 people in a government office in Sacramento and calculated that nearly one-third of Puerto Rican women were sterilized by the U.S. government between 1933 and 1968.

    Also troubling is that what made eugenics so appealing in its 1930s heyday overlaps with the core of Northern Californian ideals: our progressivism, our connection to nature, our frontier sensibility.

    While eugenics is embedded in our history, it doesn’t belong to the past. The instincts that popularized the eugenics movement—a desire for purity, the impulse to control others’ bodies, the catchall categorizations—are gaining strength today.

    Too Late for Too Many 

    Hayward native Barbara Swarr didn’t learn about her Aunt Rose until after she died, when her own mother’s death prompted her to learn more about her family. “I felt like an orphan,” she said.

    Her digging led to a surprise when she learned that Rose—a tender, sweet girl who loved to play dolls with her cousins—had been sterilized.

    “One day, one of my cousins said she was really friendly with the boys,” Swarr said. “And that’s one of the reasons why they did the sterilization, I’m sure, because they were scared she was going to get pregnant.”

    Swarr’s aunt never made it home. Rose died on the operating table at the age of 16.

    When Swarr had the opportunity to examine the paperwork that authorized Rose’s sterilization, she noticed names were spelled wrong and that the handwriting did not look like that of her uncle, who had supposedly taken her to the hospital.

    “Somebody else did it all,” Swarr said.

    Rose’s mother, Swarr’s grandmother, was dying of cancer at the time after having given birth to 13 children, only eight of whom had survived infancy. Family life was challenging.

    “Immigrant life, it was really hard. They had no plumbing, no running water, only a well in the backyard,” Swarr said.

    Swarr’s grandmother was particularly close with Rose, and soon after her daughter’s death she died of the stomach cancer that had been plaguing her.

    “She died without her baby,” Swarr said. “It was really hard.”

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