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A Survivor Reacts To California's Reparations Program For Forced Sterilizations


A note now - our next story deals with subject matter that is not appropriate for all listeners.

The state of California is trying to make amends with a cruel past. In the early-to-mid 1900s, the state forcibly sterilized tens of thousands of women and men as part of a state eugenics program. The state banned those forced sterilizations in 1979, but the Center for Investigative Reporting found that between 2006 and 2010, the state sterilized nearly 150 incarcerated women without required state approvals.

Now Governor Gavin Newsom has signed into law a provision that would provide an estimated $25,000 in reparations to each of the hundreds of living survivors of those sterilizations. Kelli Dillon is one of those survivors, and she joins us now.



CHANG: Hi. Thank you for being with us. Now, I know that you have been fighting for justice and redress for more than a decade now. And I'm just wondering, how does it feel now that this reparations legislation has passed?

DILLON: Yes, I feel - actually, I feel grateful, and I feel relieved because it's been for over 20 years that we have been fighting. And for some of the other survivors, it's been over 40 years. So I'm relieved that we're at a place to be able to move forward in the healing that we have been looking for.

CHANG: And can you explain exactly how this reparations program would work?

DILLON: Yeah. So the reparations program, through the budget, is broke down into three different parts, the first part being that California will provide memorial monuments in areas throughout the state of California that represent over 25,000 sterilized survivors through the program. The second part of it is that a portion of that - the funding will go back to California to create a public health committee that will actually be in charge of the notification process and looking to see how they can find the eligibility for survivors. And then the third piece will go towards the actual compensation.

CHANG: I want to talk a little bit about your own story. Can you tell us - how did you find out you were sterilized? - because I understand you were still incarcerated at the time when you realized what had happened to you.

DILLON: Yes, I was incarcerated at the time, and I was 24 years old when I had undergone a surgery that was an abdominal surgery that was a simple procedure to check for cervical cancer and as well as address some possible cysts that may have been on the outside of my uterus. And so that was the surgery in which I consented to and which I was told it was a simple procedure. But, afterwards, I began to experience so many, like, strange symptoms in which I now know that they were symptoms of menopause and hormonal changes. And so after numerous complaints, numerous requests to speak to a physician or to either follow up with the surgeon, I was constantly denied, and I was given the runaround. And so that caused me to actually reach out to an agency who was doing some social justice work inside of women's prisons around medical health care. And Cynthia Chandler, who was an attorney and also the executive director of Justice Now at the time, came back to speak with me. And so from there, she helped me to advocate and actually provided the funding that was necessary to retrieve my medical records. And that's how I found out, which was, like, a year or so later.

CHANG: And, eventually, after you discovered the magnitude of what had happened to you, you eventually began gathering the stories of other women in that correctional facility. Can you tell us, what did you find?

DILLON: Yeah. So we began to discover that a lot of young women between the childbearing ages of at least about 24 to about 35 were having these surgeries at alarming - high rates. And so - and doing - it allowed us, with the findings we had, to open up an investigation.

CHANG: Horrendous - what do you think is next for these survivors? I mean, do you think this fight for accountability ends with these reparations of $25,000 per individual?

DILLON: Oh, no. No. No. No, the fight for reproductive justice and reparations does not end with just the distribution of these funds, but it is a step towards it. What we have been doing - all coalition agencies that are involved - we have began to do education, understanding the history of eugenics, understanding what sterilization practices and what they look like and how they show up in other institutions and also understanding what these policies are and, you know, that are place - put in place for population control.

CHANG: Kelli Dillon is a survivor of California's forced sterilizations in prisons.

Thank you very much for taking the time to share your story with us today.

DILLON: Thank you so much for inviting me and for your interest in this story and allowing your listeners to learn about the history of eugenics.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
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