California Woman Tells Her Story of Being Sterilized Under State Program That Was the Model for Nazi Germany

Forced sterilization
Demonstrators outside Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center in 1974, protesting the state's forced sterilization law that allowed the government to remove reproductive organs without full disclosure.Los Angeles Times/Getty

In eugenics practice dating back decades, California forced thousands to undergo forced sterilizations. Many were poor and people of color. Moonlight Pulido, whose womb was removed in prison in 2005, shares her story.

For seven decades, the state of California sterilized more than 20,000 people deemed inferior and unworthy of having children. Most were private citizens. Some were prison inmates.

Moonlight Pulido is one of the latter, she says. The forced sterilization of female prisoners was not outlawed until 2014. The forced sterilization of private citizens wasn't outlawed until 1979.

What happened to Moonlight Pulido

She was 41 and an inmate at California's Valley State Prison for Women when Pulido says she underwent what she believed was a routine pap smear in 2005.

"They told me you have two growths that have the potential to turn into cancer," she tells Inside Edition Digital. "It kind of scared me because my son had cancer, and radiation didn't work ... The doctor offered surgery, so I went ahead and told the doctor to remove the growths," she says.

She was hospitalized for three days. "I kept falling asleep and when I woke up, I was drenched in sweat." Pulido just didn't feel right, she says. "I knew something was wrong."

She asked a nurse what had been done in surgery. The nurse "looked at my paperwork and said 'You had a full hysterectomy,'" Pulido says.

"I'm angry. I'm hurt," she says of her emotions at the time. She had a follow-up appointment with the doctor. "I said, 'What did you do to me? You gave me a full hysterectomy?"

"He basically just played God," she says. "He took it upon himself to decide whether I had more children. He said to me, 'I'm tired of you pretty girls coming here. You have these babies and taxpayers have to take care of them, and then you come back to prison,'" Pulido recounts.

"I was in shock for a good month."

The long and tortured history of forced sterilization in the U.S.

The eugenics law of California was deemed so successful by Nazi Germans they based their own annihilation programs on it.

In 1909, California began what became by far the largest effort in the nation to sterilize those considered unworthy of having children — people with psychiatric problems, physical handicaps, the "feeble minded" and others considered “genetically defective."

For seven decades, more than 20,000 residents, many of them poor and people of color, were forced to have their reproductive organs removed or surgically altered under a state-run eugenics program, a practice believers said would rid the gene pool of undesirable elements.

The law was repealed in 1979. But state prisons kept sterilizing female inmates until 2014, many without their consent, according to a state audit that followed a bombshell story about the program written the year before by the Center for Investigative Reporting, now known as Reveal.

Starting last year, the state has been trying to pay reparations to all survivors of forced sterilization, though many are long dead. Two groups are eligible: survivors of the state eugenic law and the inmates who were victimized in prison.

An estimated 600 are still alive, and 250 of that number are current or former prisoners, according to the state.

Paroled in 2022, Pulido applied for compensation and received a $15,000 payment. She is grateful for that. But she still hears the voice of the doctor who later acknowledged giving her a hysterectomy, she says.

"He stole something, and he didn't have permission," she says.

Forced sterilization, she says, is a judgment that "you're not fit to have children because we're in and out of the system.

"Just because somebody commits a crime doesn't mean that somebody doesn't love their kids, or they don't feed them, or they don't take care of them," she says.

California is one of at least three states that has recently passed bills to award public funds to those sterilized without their consent.

During the height of the eugenics movement in the 1930s, the procedures were performed across the country, with 32 states having eugenics laws allowing men and women to be sterilized against their will. The belief that "inferior" people should not procreate went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1927, the high court ruled 8 to 1 to uphold a state's right to stop people from having children. Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes, considered a progressive legal scholar, wrote the majority opinion in Buck vs. Bell, in which a Black woman in Virginia was incorrectly diagnosed as "feeble-minded" and had her fallopian tubes severed against her will.

“It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind," Holmes wrote. 

“Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” he stated.

Eugenics in America "were efforts to purge the weakest members," author Audrey Clare Farley told Inside Edition Digital. "To protect the purity of the white race."

Farley wrote "The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt," which chronicled the true story of a 1930s millionaire heiress who was secretly sterilized by her mother to prevent her from inheriting the family's fortune.

The targets of eugenics were often women who were judged mentally inferior and those prone to "crossing the color line and diluting the white race," Farley said. "Criminality was thought to be an inherited trait, like blue eyes or blond hair. You were defective and you are that way because of your genes," Farley says.

"In prisons, doctors had this idea ... if they sterilized you, it would curb those bad urges," she says. 

The practice soon spread to private practices. It was so widespread in the South, where Black women were targeted, the procedures earned a gruesome nickname: Mississippi appendectomies.

"They think they're getting treatment for something, and they come home without a womb," Farley says.

Moonlight Pulido's life in the system

Pulido has been in and out of the criminal justice system for much of her adult life. She fell into drug use after a childhood marred by sexual abuse, she says. Her last arrest, for attempted murder, put her in state prison in 1997. "I was living the wrong life. I was selling drugs," she says.

During a drug transaction that went sideways, Pulido says the female buyer "pulled out a crowbar and I pulled out a gun. We fought," she says. "She got shot," but survived. "I'm glad she lived."

The 26 years Pulido spent in prison for that conviction allowed her to "get myself together," she says. 

And ultimately, on her third appeal, she was able to persuade the parole board that she deserved a second chance, she says. "They wanted me to take full responsibility. I had to tell them what kind of a person I am now. I had to show them my integrity and my respect."

California tries to set things right by compensating forced sterilization victims

The state's program to pay reparations to the victimized has thus far received 389 applications.

But only 64 have been approved since January 2022, when the California Victim Compensation Board began reviewing them. The state agency is tasked with disbursing reparation payments from $4.5 million set aside by the legislature in 2021. Additional funds were set aside for advertising the program.

Another 182 applications are under consideration, and 143 have been denied, mostly for lack of documentation, the board said.

Initial payments are estimated at $15,000 per victim, with additional funds possibly available at a later date.

But some former prisoners seeking compensation claim the application process is unreasonably difficult and complicated, and requires medical documents that often can't be found.

In some cases, those records were destroyed long ago, the women say.

"Obviously that's the challenge with this process," Lynda Gledhill, the board's chief executive, tells Inside Edition Digital. "From 1909 to 1979 (when the eugenic law was in force), some records are in the state archives," and some are in the records of medical facilities that performed the procedures, she says.

Others are seemingly nowhere.

"We recognize that this was long ago and the records aren't perfect," Gledhill says. "We're doing the best that we can in trying to find those records. Unfortunately, there are limits to what we can do."

Moonlight Pulido strives to move forward and bring others with her

Moonlight Pulido - Facebook

Pulido knows she is one of the lucky ones. In her case, there was sufficient medical evidence to show she had been sterilized without her consent. 

She now helps other women who have been imprisoned and experienced what she did. "I'm trying to find other people who have been denied (in the application process). I don't think they know they can appeal. And that they can keep refiling."

Her new life on the outside sometimes stops her in tracks. "I feel like a little kid looking around, taking it all in." 

The internet baffles her. "When I went in, all they had was pagers." "New technology is ..." Pulido struggles to find the right words and finally settles on "oh, oh."

She lives on worker's compensation checks that she receives for a prison injury. She rents a room from a friend. She works to re-establish relationships with her seven children. She strives to find a way to contribute, and to live in grace without resentment for the state's violation of her body. 

She credits her spiritual beliefs as a Native American.

The state she still lives in has a damning history of government-sponsored racism, from California's state-run Japanese internment camps during World War II to the forced sterilization of mostly minority women in public institutions and facilities.

In 1975, a class-action suit was filed on behalf of 10 Hispanic women against Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center over allegations of involuntary sterilization. Dolores Madrigal claimed she was forced to sign a form consenting to sterilization while she was in the throes of labor. Other plaintiffs said they were told the procedure was a temporary birth control measure that could be reversed.

A young doctor at the county hospital blew the whistle on the practice, smuggling detailed medical records out of the public hospital that documented how poor and minority women were targets for having their tubes tied because they had too many children and were considered a drain on public services.

Despite that evidence, the judge sided with county, ruling the sterilizations were the result of miscommunication and language barriers between the women and the doctors.

But a movement had begun. Former state Sen. Art Torres wrote the 1979 bill that repealed the law allowing forced sterilizations. “I would venture to say most people in this legislature, and most people in California, aren’t even aware there was a eugenics movement in California,” he told CNN decades later.

“California has not done right by these victims,” Torres said. “But I think California and Californians need to be aware of their history.”

Author Audrey Farley says forced sterilizations still continue, citing dozens of women who have come forward saying they received unnecessary sterilizations while detained at Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities. A whistleblower nurse has also said such procedures were performed at a Georgia detention center.

The immigration service says it no longer sends detainees to that facility and is actively reviewing the allegations.

Targeting women of color for sterilization means "they're just looked at as so-called 'welfare queens,'" Farley says. "It's still going on."

Sadly, she noted, "there are a lot of Americans who do view women in prisons and ICE facilities as being undeserving of having children and undeserving of human resources."

Gledhill, the executive director of California's victim compensation board, says her agency takes its mandate very seriously, and works diligently within the legal parameters of the reparations program, which runs until the end of 2023.

"The forced sterilization (fund) was set up by the legislature for those who underwent these procedures," Gledhill says.

"We feel deeply for these people."

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