COMMENTARY | What is the price you would attach to your right to bear children? A five-person panel in North Carolina thinks it is $50,000.
From 1929 to 1974, more than 7,600 people in North Carolina were forced to undergo sterilization under state laws and practices that targeted epileptics and others considered to be feebleminded or otherwise “undesirable.”
While this abhorrent practice smacks of World War II Nazi Germany, the shameful truth is that beginning in the early 1900s, more than 30 states in the U.S. carried out eugenics programs designed to eliminate mental illness, genetic defects and social ills. However, while most states ceased these practices after World War II when they became associated with Hitler’s Germany, North Carolina aggressively increased its sterilization efforts.
A 2002 investigation by The Winston-Salem Journal revealed that more than 2,000 people ages 18 and younger were sterilized in many questionable cases, including a 10-year-old who was castrated. Children were sterilized over the objections of their parents, and the consent process was often a sham.
Elaine Riddick, 57, was sterilized at 14 after she gave birth to a son as the result of a rape. In a videotaped interview with The Winston-Salem Journal, Reddick says “They took away something from me so valuable that I can never get it back. They took away from me the right to be a woman.”
Although North Carolina’s eugenics laws allowed sterilization for “epilepsy, sickness, and feeblemindedness,” the law was loosely interpreted to permit sterilization in other areas, including homosexuality and perceived promiscuity. While in the early years the program was racially balanced, by 1960 60 percent of those sterilized were African-American and 99 percent were women.
At the request of Governor Beverly Perdue, a task force was formed to determine how to compensate victims of the state’s eugenics program. Its members — a judge, a doctor, a former journalist, a historian and a lawyer — determined that of the state’s 7,600 victims, as many as 2,000 people were still living and should receive $50,000 each. In addition, the task force recommended that the state provide mental health services for those victims who still may suffer from feelings of loss, anxiety or depression. Compensation will not be paid to victims’ family members or descendants.
No amount of money can undo or right the wrongs of North Carolina’s cruel eugenics policies. Still, to Governor Perdue’s credit, North Carolina is the first state to offer more than apologies to victims of forced sterilization. And while compensation will not ease the victims’ anguish, it will serve to show that we as a society have the ability to acknowledge wrongdoing and make amends.
The compensation package will be before the state legislature this year. One can only hope that the North Carolina legislature will do the right thing and approve it.
Source: Martha Waggoner, “N.C. to recommend money for sterilization victims,” boston.com, January 9, 2012