Many people are surprised to learn that in the 20th century over 60,000 people in the United States, mainly patients in state asylums and hospitals, were sterilized based on eugenics laws. A number of excellent books and articles and a few web resources on the history of eugenics and sterilization have appeared in recent years, but very little known is about the demographics and experiences of people sterilized, often against their will. Eugenics, the effort to shape and limit populations through sterilization and other forms of reproductive control, was popularized and institutionalized in 20th century America. While eugenics laws have largely been struck down and/or removed, the legacies of these practices have shaped communities and relationships between communities throughout the U.S.
Eugenic Rubicon is a developing prototype (http://scalar.usc.edu/works/eugenic-rubicon-/index) that uses mixed media and digital storytelling methods to share portions of this history. We have both examples of primary documents and newly authored materials that help to give a sense of children’s experiences of these practices, of different kinds of resistance enacted by patients, and how local practices at Sonoma State shaped this history.
This digital resource draws from and complements the demographic and social science research on eugenic sterilization in California being carried out by the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab at the University of Michigan. Working with a unique resource — nearly 50,000 patient records from California institutions from the period 1921 to 1953 — our project seeks to make this history visible. Additionally we are working to make the dataset we’ve developed accessible and interactive. These records were microfilmed by the California Department of State Hospitals in the 1970s and only recently discovered; The Sterilization and Social Justice Lab has digitized these reels and are using them in compliance with state and university regulations to create a dataset that adheres to protocols around sensitive health data. These materials create opportunities as well as challenges for storytelling and possibilities for humanizing stories of reproductive injustice. It also raises important legal questions about how to balance the “right to know” with the “need to protect” in the realm of medical and health histories.
Eugenic Rubicon: California’s Sterilization Stories is a multidisciplinary collaboration between Arizona State University and University of Michigan and that includes digital storytelling, data visualization, and the construction of interactive digital platforms. This project employs creative approaches to history, digital humanities, and foregrounds commitments to social and reproductive justice.
The Digital Justice Lab is currently working on a new website (launching in 2021) to showcase three states worth of eugenics stories.