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Illustration of a tree draped with a banner that reads "EUGENICS." The roots of the tree have the names of various disciplines on them, e.g. genetics, genealogy, biology, history.

As appalling as it sounds today, the practice of sterilizing mentally ill women and men to prevent them from passing on their supposedly defective genes was routine and accepted across the United States in the first half of the 20th century. But nowhere was the eugenics movement, as it was called, more entrenched and aggressively pursued than in California.

An estimated 20,000 people in the care of state homes and hospitals in California were sterilized because they were deemed mentally ill, "feeble-minded" or, in some cases, just sexually promiscuous; that's one-third of all the sterilizations that were performed under eugenics programs around the country. A disproportionate number of those sterilized, unsurprisingly, were poor or Latino. Many were pressured into giving consent; others were forced. Doctors in state institutions could order patients to undergo the procedure; the State Commission on Lunacy, created in 1913, often approved those decisions. The law allowing sterilizations was not repealed until 1979.

California has officially apologized; Gov. Gray Davis did so in 2003. But that's not enough. Academics and advocates have long argued for something more...