Seeking justice: CalVCB’s forced or involuntary sterilization compensation program

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Moonlight Pulido, 58, is a formerly incarcerated Native woman held at Valley State Prison for Women from 1996 to 2022. While imprisoned there, she had what was supposed to be a routine pap smear from a Dr. Heinrich with the California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation in late summer 2005. He subsequently told Moonlight that she had two growths that had the potential to turn into cancer.

“Cancer was scary for me,” Moonlight says, “because my son had cancer at the age of 12. The doctor asked me if I would be willing to have the growths removed. I said yes, thinking that this would be a life-saving procedure, without a thought that the doctor would do something other than that. Later, I was in the hospital for three days, feeling unwell with unusual body sensations such as sweat drenching my body.” Something was wrong.

Then Moonlight had an exam for a dressing change with a woman nurse. What she learned about what the male doctor did was a bombshell. He had performed a full hysterectomy on her, according to the nurse.

“I was in shock,” Moonlight says, “and speechless.”

Angry and hurt, Moonlight subsequently saw Dr. Heinrich. She confronted him, asking what he had done to her. After closing the exam door to ensure that nobody could hear his answer, Moonlight recalls the doctor saying that he was tired of nonwhite girls getting pregnant upon release from prison, having kids that end up on taxpayer-supported welfare.

Years later, Moonlight applied for financial restitution for her medical maltreatment as a state prisoner, and recently received that compensation through the California Victim Compensation Board.

Moonlight is not alone as a victim of forced and involuntary sterilization. She is in fact one of many people in state facilities after 1979 when state eugenics laws were taken off the books who were sterilized either unknowingly or against their will.

Now the CalVCB is busy tracking down as many remaining victims of forced and involuntary sterilization as possible, going back to the pre-1979 era. It is a challenging task, CalVCB Chief Officer Lynda Gledhill told the Capitol Weekly podcast in January.

“This is a very hard to reach population,” she said. “The estimates are that there are maybe 600 of those people still alive. And as you can imagine, they are quite elderly. And if they were in state hospitals or were incarcerated, their relationship with state government is not that great so they can be very hard to reach.”

To this end, the agency began to air radio and TV spots to contact Californians who have survived involuntary and forced sterilizations in state mental hospitals and prisons. But time is becoming a major factor, as the program concludes at the end of December.

Meanwhile, Capitol Weekly asked the CDCR to answer how Moonlight’s compensation affects future litigation against the CDCR and its doctor, in terms of accountability for criminal and possible civil charges.

In their unattributed email reply, the agency said California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS) and the federal receiver for prison health care in California “take the issue of forced or involuntary sterilization very seriously.” They further say that when they learned that non-medically necessary procedures resulting in sterilization were being performed on patients like Moonlight, they were stopped and staff was provided with comprehensive training to prevent such procedures from occurring in the future.

Now the CalVCB is busy tracking down as many remaining victims of forced and involuntary sterilization as possible, going back to the pre-1979 era.

The agency says that training is still being provided today, and that CCHCS “is now actively involved in California’s Forced or Involuntary Sterilization Compensation Program,” which the CalVCB administers as part of the 2021-22 state budget package.

Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo has been a major backer of the CalVCB’s Forced or Involuntary Sterilization Compensation Program, which compensates survivors. She also chairs the Assembly Budget Subcommittee No. 4 on Administration, which oversees the CalVCB, and could extend the filing deadline for applications. The committee that she chairs has five-members including her, plus two alternates, totaling five Democrats and two Republicans.

“It is the first reparations program of its kind,” she said in a statement. “Nothing can ever undo this wrong, but we are making progress in recognizing the injustice.”

CalVCB has an online portal for survivors of state-sponsored forced or unknown sterilization can apply for compensation until December 31, 2023.

Carrillo notes that California had eugenics laws on the books that forcibly or without disclosure sterilized people until 1979 in state hospital and in state prisons to 2010. That Golden State history bears a striking similarity to the rise of Nazism.

In Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, author James Q. Whitman compares the two nations’ jurisprudence and politics in the birth of the infamous anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws. In sum, German fascism and its handmaiden of eugenics, e.g., scientific racism, took inspiration from stateside policies and practices.

Meanwhile, Moonlight has retained counsel. Her plan is to pursue litigation for pain and suffering as a victim of involuntary sterilization while held in a California prison.

“That doctor took a gift from me to give life that the Creator bestowed,” Moonlight says. “That is a blessing that the doctor stole from me without my consent, knowledge and permission. It is not okay.”

Information on how to apply for the Forced or Involuntary Sterilization Compensation Program can be found here. The CalVCB keeps all communication confidential.

Seth Sandronsky lives and works in Sacramento. He is a journalist and member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email

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