Leonard Bisel was 15 when the state of California decided that he should not have children, threatening to lock him up and force him to do hard labor if he did not submit to sterilization.
In the middle of his operation, recalled Bisel, now 88, he woke up. “It was really painful,” he said, “and the doctor told me to shut up.”
Under the influence of a movement known as eugenics, whose supporters believed that those with physical disabilities, psychiatric disorders and other conditions were “genetically defective,” more than 60,000 people across the United States were forcibly sterilized by state-run programs throughout the 20th century.
They included more than 20,000 people over seven decades in California, under a eugenics law enacted in 1909. Almost all of the state’s procedures were performed through institutions, like the one where Bisel lived, and none were legally required to have the patient’s consent. Some of those sterilized were as young as 11.
Even after California repealed its eugenics law in 1979, it continued to sterilize women in prison, sometimes without ensuring that their consent was lawfully obtained, according to a 2014 state report that followed an exposé by the Center for Investigative Reporting.