During her annual pap smear at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, California, in 2005, Moonlight Pulido received harrowing news: Doctors had found two potentially cancerous growths in her uterus.
“When he said the word cancer, it freaked me out because my son had cancer when he was 12,” she said.
In the haze of the shocking news, Pulido agreed to the doctor’s suggestion to remove the growths. She thought she was making a choice that would save her life. Instead, she left with a full hysterectomy.
But she didn’t know it right away. The morning after the surgery, Pulido woke up dripping with sweat and a sense that something was deeply wrong. She kept sweating through her clothes, and once out of the hospital, she would lie on the shower floor to cool off. It wasn’t until she returned to the hospital days later to have her bandages changed that a nurse casually told Pulido she’d gotten a full hysterectomy.
“He took something from me that creator gave me and every other woman on this planet—the blessing to be able to create life,” Pulido said. “It’s like being robbed in your sleep and waking up, and your whole house is gone, and you’re just lying in the middle of the floor with nothing. Everybody’s gone.”
Moonlight is one of at least 600 people who have been sterilized against their will in California and are now eligible for compensation under a $4.5 million state initiative. And with only a few months before the program sunsets at the end of 2023, only 80 applications have been approved as of April 2023.
California’s Forced or Involuntary Sterilization Compensation Program passed in 2021 and followed similar initiatives in Virginia and North Carolina to compensate victims of state-sponsored sterilizations that arose out of the eugenics movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. California’s program is unique in that it also includes people forcibly sterilized while incarcerated in state prisons after state eugenics laws were repealed.
California had the largest forced sterilization program in the country, bolstered by a eugenics movement that wanted to prevent people with mental illness or disabilities from having children. Between 1909 and 1979—when the state finally repealed its eugenics law—about 20,000 mostly Black, Latinx, and Indigenous women were sterilized against their will.
Between 2005 and 2013, California surgically sterilized 144 people in women’s prisons. The majority of the sterilizations occurred at two prisons: Valley State Prison and California Institution for Women in Corona. A single doctor, James Heinrich, was responsible for arranging the bulk of those at Valley State Prison, telling a Reveal reporter the sterilizations were a cost-effective service “compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children—as they procreated more.” It was Heinrich, too, who arranged for Pulido to have a hysterectomy without explanation of what the procedure would entail.
The state ultimately banned sterilization as a method of birth control inside prisons and jails in 2014.
Officials are trying to reach as many eligible people as they can before the program ends. They earmarked $2 million dollars at the program’s outset for administration and outreach and have sent fact sheets to skilled nursing homes and libraries, launched a $280,000 social media campaign, and paid for TV and radio ads prompting people to apply before the December 2023 deadline.
But getting these payments to the survivors has been a struggle. Any surviving victims of state-sponsored sterilization from that era are likely in their 80s, 90s, or even older. And many—especially those who’ve been incarcerated—are wary of the same government that betrayed their trust.
There’s been momentum growing, too, among people like Pulido and organizers like those at California Coalition of Women’s Prisoners (CCWP) who have been trying to get the word out to their network and advocate for them.
“I struggled in the beginning because I was embarrassed. I didn’t really tell anybody,” Pulido said of the weeks and years following her sterilization. “And little did I know, there were so, so many other people around me that had the same thing happen to them. People that were my bunk mates, that we shared the same bunk bed, had done it as well. And I never knew. I never knew.”
The shame in being sterilized without her consent or knowledge fed the culture of silence that already permeates incarceration and made it difficult for her or other women to speak up. But that’s why she chooses to share her story now and find other women impacted by this experience to connect them with opportunities like these.
Pulido knew about the program before her release and navigated the application process with the help of CCWP. When Pulido received notice that her application had been approved and the funds were on the way, she was in disbelief. Pulido, who was released in January 2022, spent 26 years incarcerated and knew that money would go a long way in helping her establish her life outside.
“It was highly, highly, highly appreciated, but there was that backside of me that kept saying, ‘What about an “I’m sorry”? What about that apology?’” she said.
But even receiving the funds is an additional hurdle because not everyone sterilized at a state prison is eligible.
Some people had an endometrial ablation, a procedure where the uterine lining is destroyed to reduce, or sometimes stop, menstrual flow. Those with endometrial ablations don’t qualify for compensation, despite the likelihood of pregnancy after the procedure being incredibly low and the risks of miscarriage or other complications being much higher.
The compensation program also does not include a sizable group of victims of forced sterilizations—the more that 200 women sterilized at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center between 1968 and 1974. These women, many of them Mexican migrants who spoke little to no English, were coerced into consenting to sterilizations while in labor without any information or translated materials describing what the procedure would mean.
This led to a landmark 1978 class-action lawsuit, Madrigal v. Quilligan, which prompted California to repeal its sterilization law and implement informed consent policies. Though the hospital received government funding to perform sterilizations, like tubal ligations, under the guise of family planning, its status as a county-run institution and not a state-operated one makes those sterilized at the hospital ineligible for compensation under this program.
Because of these omissions, Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, who initially pushed for the program, is now pushing to expand it, beginning with a $300,000 grant to research the eugenics practices at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, now known as Los Angeles General Medical Center, and locate the women who were forcibly sterilized. The ultimate goal is to compensate them as well.
“The disproportionate effect this had on women of color, and specifically Latinas, must be acknowledged, and it is imperative that California spares no effort in finding every living survivor. Recognizing that finding and providing compensation will never make them whole, it is the first step in addressing the wrongs that have been inflicted upon them,” Carrillo said in a statement.