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North Carolina Finally Confronting The Horrors Of Their Eugenics Laws

It is still hard for me to accept that forced sterilization and eugenics programs existed as recently as the 1960s so as to eliminate “defectives” from the gene pool. We are not talking about Hitler and Nazi Germany, but instead Woodrow Wilson and 32 states in America in the 20th Century.

As a law student, I remember being dumbfounded when I read Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s comment in the United States Supreme Court decision, Buck v. Bell:

“It is better for all the world, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind….Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

In that case, the United States Supreme Court upheld a Virginia compulsory sterilization statute of those the state deemed unfit, including the mentally retarded, “for the protection and health of the state.” Parenthetically, Virginia’s sterilization law remained on the books until 1974.

This month, North Carolina will conduct hearings looking into its own inglorious complicity in these negative eugenics programs:

Elaine Riddick Jesse can’t forgive the state of North Carolina for sterilizing her in 1968

A North Carolina state task force is holding a public listening session later this month for victims of the state’s now defunct eugenics law to come forward and share their stories. The session is part of an effort to compensate those who were forcibly sterilized decades ago. The majority of victims were poor black women, and many were minors or the victims of rape or incest.

“The fewer black babies we have the better, that’s what some people said,” Professor Paul Lombardo told the BBC about the program. “They’re just going to end up on welfare.”

North Carolina is one of 32 states that passed laws that allowed the sterilization of people deemed “unfit to breed,” and ultimately took away the reproductive rights of more than 60,000 people nationwide. The programs targeted people deemed to be criminals, juvenile delinquents, the mentally ill, women considered to be “sexual deviants,” gay men, and people suffering from epilepsy. Those on welfare were targeted as well, especially African Americans after welfare became available to them in the 1960s, because they were seen as a drain on the system.

Operations were often done without the victim’s knowledge. Sterilization was also sometimes used as a condition for release from prison or a hospital, or as an ultimatum to cutting off benefits.

In 1968, 13-year-old Elaine Riddick was raped by a neighbor. After giving birth in a hospital, a social worker deemed her “feeble minded” and officials coerced her illiterate grandmother to sign an “X” on an authorization form to have her sterilized.

“My grandmother was afraid that if she didn’t sign the paper, they would cut off her benefits, like the canned food she got every week,” Riddick said. “So she signed, without understanding what sterilization or tubal ligation really meant.” Riddick, now 57, plans to testify at the session.

Many states began abandoning their eugenics programs after World War II, fearing comparisons to Nazis’ eugenics practices in Germany. But North Carolina’s program actually grew stronger after the 1940s, bolstered by financial support from some of the state’s wealthiest residents. That is why the state is believed to have more surviving victims, almost 40 percent of the over 7,500 sterilized, even though it is behind Virginia and California as the states with the highest numbers of sterilizations. North Carolina was also unique in that it was the only state that used social workers to urge sterilization, and allowed people to petition the state to have someone sterilized. The program lasted until the late 1970s and the state’s eugenics law was removed from the books in 2003.

After collecting testimonies in Raleigh on June 22, the state task force will make a recommendation to the governor on how to compensate surviving victims. North Carolina congressman Larry Womble is pushing for monetary compensation. $20,000 has been suggested, a figure that could amount to up to $58 million in reparations for the estimated 2,900 surviving victims, although many victims are expected to not come forward out of shame. Reparations of any amount are sure to face stiff opposition, as the state is facing a $2.5 billion budget hole this year.


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