When Leonard Bisel was a fifteen-year-old boy, the state of California decided that he should be sterilized. They threatened him with hard prison time and hard labor if he did not submit to the castration. Now Bisel is an 88-year-old man who feels that his life and future were taken away from him because of mistakes he made as an underage boy. Bisel even awoke during the operation and said, “It was really painful, and the doctor told me to shut up.”
During the 20th century, state-run programs sterilized tens of thousands of Americans. The program was known as eugenics, in which people believed that people with disabilities, psychiatric disorders, and other conditions that affected their lives were “genetically defective.” As a result of this thinking, people were forced to undergo sterilization so they would not be able to produce more people who had the same “defect.”
These state-run programs sterilized more than 60,000 Americans. Some of these people were as young as eleven years old.
In California, eugenics began in 1909 when it was enacted into law. The state worked hard to sterilize as many as 20,000 people over the course of seven decades. The state performed most of its procedures through established institutions that did not require the patient’s consent. Bisel was one such victim of eugenics. Some of the people that California authorities sterilized were as young as children in elementary school.
California repealed its terrifying eugenics law in 1979. However, the state continued to sterilize female prisons even without obtaining their consent before forcing them to undergo the procedure. This came to light as part of an investigative report published in 2014 that followed a deep look into the process by the Center for Investigative Reporting.
“There still is a great amount of prejudice against people with disabilities and assumptions that they are, in the most extreme form, not worthy of life, not worthy of being born and certainly not worthy of parenting,” said Alexandra Minna Stern, a University of Michigan professor who is an expert on eugenics and reproductive rights.
However, not every victim of California’s eugenics law had a disability. Many of the children that were sterilized were the victims of “broken homes” and grew up in poverty. Many had suffered abuse and were largely Black, Latino, Asian American, or Native America – in other words, non-whites were targeted.
Bisel was transferred to the Sonoma State Home in Eldridge, California, after his father died. His mother was unable to care for him. He was forced to submit his body to sterilization and was listed as being “dull” on paperwork. Records show that Bisel’s mother was sterilized at the same institution.
“You just feel like nothing,” he said. “You’re not worth anything.”
“The real shame to me is that politicians and the public dragged their feet for decades in addressing this issue,” said Paul Lombardo, a law professor at Georgia State University who has studied the eugenics movement, “and now most of the people who would have benefited are dead.”
Now victims of eugenics might be getting reparations for the systemic mistreatment. North Carolina has already begun paying reparations for its state-run eugenics program.
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