Involuntary Hysterectomies During Surgery: California’s History of Nonconsensual Sterilization

The United States was founded with the intention of protecting its citizens’ rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Today, most people interpret these “inalienable” rights to include the right to bodily autonomy, including the right to choose whether and when to have children. However, that has not always been the case. 

The 20th century saw an explosion of racist and ableist laws based on eugenicist ideas that permitted healthcare providers and other medical and carceral facilities to perform forced sterilizations. While these laws have been widely accepted as unjust and struck from the books, forced and coerced sterilizations still occur. 

Today, though, nonconsensual sterilizations are a form of medical malpractice. If you have been sterilized against your will, you may be able to hold the medical practitioner and facility accountable for the harm they caused you. Below, we discuss the history of forced sterilization in California, when it occurs today, and what you can do to take legal action against facilities that stripped you of your fertility. 

California’s History of Forced Sterilization

During the 20th century, more than 30 other states implemented laws that permitted forced sterilizations. These laws were explicitly designed as a form of eugenics to prevent so-called “undesirable” people from having children. They were primarily aimed at people with mental and physical disabilities, particularly those who were institutionalized or incarcerated. 

California was no exception. In fact, it was one of the first to implement these laws nationwide. From 1909 to 1979, California had laws on the books that permitted state-run hospitals and prisons to forcibly sterilize their residents. It is estimated that the state sterilized more than 20,000 people during this time. 

Both men and women have been impacted by these unwanted procedures. Originally, men were more likely to face unwanted castration due to the comparative simplicity of the surgery. However, after the widespread adoption of the caesarean section (C-section), women were far more likely to be sterilized without their consent or even their knowledge. Women who had the misfortune of going into labor or needing abdominal surgery while incarcerated or institutionalized were often subject to tubal ligations or even full hysterectomies and were often never told what happened. 

While California’s forced sterilization laws were repealed in 1979, it’s important to note that that was far from the end of the matter. It appears that thousands of people have been forced or coerced into unwanted sterilizations within the state prison system as recently as 2013. Victims were primarily women of color, and many were misled about the procedures or falsely informed they were medically necessary. 

Today, the state is attempting to make up for the harm it has caused in the past. For example, the Assembly Bill (AB) 1007 was passed in 2021, establishing the Forced or Involuntary Sterilization Compensation Program. People involuntarily sterilized by state-sponsored hospitals or prisons may be eligible for compensation through this program, which ends on December 21st, 2023.

Involuntary Hysterectomies as Medical Malpractice

While compulsory sterilization laws are no longer around, the attitudes that led to them can still be found in modern hospitals. Medical practitioners often believe that they know what’s best for their patients. When this belief is combined with unconscious biases related to race or disability, it can easily cause healthcare workers to think they’re doing the “right thing” by sterilizing patients during c-sections regardless of their consent. 

This is one reason why state and federal law requires medical workers to obtain informed consent before performing any medical procedure, including hysterectomies and tubal ligations. Informed consent requires the patient to fully understand the procedure, its intended outcomes, and the potential risks. This includes:

  • Explaining the procedure to them in a language they understand well
  • Discussing any alternatives
  • Explaining the risks of not performing the procedure
  • Making it clear that they have the right to refuse
  • Getting their signature to confirm they understand

The healthcare worker may not perform the procedure if a patient doesn’t consent. Furthermore, if a patient isn’t given an explanation of the procedure or is pressured or coerced into signing consent forms, they have not actually granted informed consent. A medical practitioner who harms a patient by performing a procedure without informed consent has committed medical malpractice. 

For example, before performing a C-section on a patient, healthcare workers are obligated to explain the potential outcomes of the procedure. As surgeries on the reproductive organs, C-sections carry a risk of unintentional sterilization, which should be made clear to patients. For example, it is very occasionally necessary for surgeons to perform an emergency hysterectomy to prevent the patient from bleeding out. It is also possible that unavoidable scars could prevent the patient from getting pregnant again. 

As long as the patient consents to this risk, the surgeon may perform the C-section and take all necessary actions to preserve their life and that of the baby. They have not committed malpractice, even if the patient is rendered infertile. However, if the surgeon performs a medically unnecessary hysterectomy or tubal ligation during the procedure without the patient’s prior informed consent, or if they violate the standard of care and render them infertile, their actions become malpractice. 

Holding Hospitals Accountable for Nonconsensual Sterilizations

Finding out that you cannot have any more children can be heartbreaking. Finding out that your infertility was avoidable is even worse. If you were subject to a hysterectomy or tubal ligation without your consent, you have every right to hold your healthcare team accountable for your loss. At the Law Offices of Michael Oran, APC, we understand the harm you’ve suffered. Our Los Angeles medical malpractice lawyers can help you hold physicians and hospitals accountable for hurting you. Schedule your consultation today to discuss your case and learn more about how we can help you fight for compensation for your unwanted sterilization.

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