Forced sterilization compensation program nears end, advocates say eligible people are left out

Forced sterilization compensation program nears end
Forced sterilization compensation program nears end, advocates say eligible people are left out
Anabel Munoz Image
Thursday, December 28, 2023

A program for compensation over state-sponsored forced or involuntary sterilizations will soon come to a close, as advocates stress eligible applicants are being denied compensation.

Becoming a mother was on Geynna Buffington's mind during her 10 years of incarceration.

"I've always wanted a baby," said Buffington.

She went to prison in 1997 and in 1998 had a pap smear.

"I later was then informed that I had abnormal cells, that I had cancer cells," she said.

She underwent a form of endometrial ablation, a procedure that destroys the lining of the uterus, according to her attorney WookSun Hong.

It's not defined as a sterilization. However, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists states, "Pregnancy is not likely after ablation, but it can happen. If it does, the risks of miscarriage and other problems are greatly increased. If a woman still wants to get pregnant, she should not have this procedure."

"I don't remember signing any consent, and I know for a fact that no one talked to me because if I would've even heard the word 'you can't get pregnant,' 'you may not be able to conceive' or anything, I would have held out," said Buffington.

This is the second of a three-part series. Part 1 can be read here.

'Dehumanized' - and denied

For 10 years upon her release from prison, Buffington tried -- unsuccessfully -- to get pregnant.

It was not until a couple of years ago that she learned she had undergone an ablation while incarcerated.

"I felt so dehumanized or just taken advantage of," she said.

In 2021, the California State Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom approved a program to compensate survivors of state-sponsored forced or involuntary sterilizations including those in California women's prisons.

The agency administering the program, the California Victim Compensation Board, denied Buffington's applications and subsequent appeals. It argued that she did not undergo a forced or coercive sterilization procedure.

Among the letters included in Buffington's last appeal is a declaration by a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist who cites studies finding the pregnancy rate after endometrial ablation is within the range of sterilization, adding in part, "It is imperative that informed consent for endometrial ablation cover the rate of sterilization or inability to get pregnant, and that should a pregnancy occur, there is a high morbidity rate."

"They're told they would need to use birth control because if a pregnancy were to ever, in the rare chance, happen, it could be lethal and kill the pregnant person," said Cynthia Chandler, senior assistant district attorney and policy chief at the Alameda County District Attorney's Office.

Before joining the Alameda County D.A.'s office, Chandler spent roughly two decades working to uncover and end forced and coerced sterilizations in California prisons.

She also drafted part of the law for the compensation program and said they specifically did not define sterilization.

"We wanted to recognize that sterilization can come in many different forms," she said.

Chandler first learned about the ablation procedures in the early 2000s as she represented people in women's prisons in cases of gross medical abuses.

"I remember being shocked and horrified when I heard about the ablation procedures," said Chandler. "People were coming to me reporting that they didn't know what the procedure was that was done to them. They weren't informed ahead of time of even what it was called or what was going to happen to them."

Some women also reported having the procedure without anesthesia.

"It's a process by which a scalding hot fluid is pumped into a woman's uterus," said Chandler.

Law's interpretation under dispute

"The statute says that sterilization means no longer being able to be to conceive, right, and so we look at that in totality and understand what procedure somebody went through, and whether or not that qualifies as a sterilization procedure," said Lynda Gledhill, executive officer of the California Victim Compensation Board.

Yet, as the statute does not define sterilization, attorneys stress the VCB's interpretation has been inconsistent. For example, rather than the inability to conceive as Gledhill defined it, a hearing officer in Buffington's case defined sterilization as "the permanent inability to produce offspring."

"I believe they've abused their discretion wildly," said Chandler.

Eyewitness News spoke with state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley - the legislator who authored earlier iterations of the bill - about the concerns over how the VCB may be defining sterilization as it reviews applications.

"If there is a legitimate category of survivors who by state action were sterilized and we've just not captured the appropriate definition, that's worth looking at and we will look at it," Skinner said.

But time is running out.

I would have been a great mom.

Buffington and her lawyer are now asking the state court to step in.

"The paper that is in my hand now that says 'denied' it makes me feel like I'm nothing. Like just a number-- still," said Buffington.

Buffington said it's important she and others like her are compensated.

"Stand up and take accountability for what has been done. It's very important and I will fight to the bitter end," she said.

Today, Buffington works in a residential treatment facility as a peer support specialist helping people reach recovery like she did.

"I turned my life around," she said. "I would have been a great mom."

The last day to apply for compensation is Dec. 31, 2023.