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Sonoma Developmental Center

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Staff Writer Phil Barber’s startling account of thousands of forced sterilizations at the Sonoma Developmental Center documents a brutal chapter in California history.

Beginning in the early 20th century, state law authorized involuntary sterilization of men and women — and, in practice, even children as young as 7 years old — deemed unfit to have children.

Before the law was finally repealed, about 20,000 people were sterilized.

More than a quarter of those procedures occurred at the Sonoma Developmental Center, a bucolic campus in rural Eldridge that was supposed to provide refuge for some of California’s most vulnerable residents. Instead, it became an industrial surgical center where many residents were mutilated.

“Available evidence suggests Sonoma was the busiest of America’s institutional sterilization centers, and possibly the world’s,” Barber wrote in an article on Sunday’s front page.

California allowed forced sterilization of the “feebleminded” and others considered unfit for parenthood. The practice was called “eugenics,” a pseudoscience whose proponents believed the human race could be improved by sterilizing... see more